Fashion and shapewear’s relationship is as fickle as Justin and Selena’s. Women concealed their corsets for centuries, revealed them in the ’80s (thanks, Madonna and Gaultier) and then all but abandoned them in the noughties (thanks, athleisure). But if today’s runways are any indication, shapewear in all its forms—from belts that resemble waist cinchers to full-on corsets—is back, albeit with a different message.
For Tibi’s spring/summer 2018 collection, designer Amy Smilovic accented relaxed checked suiting with wide contoured belts that hearkened back to early-20th-century girdles—if girdles were made out of tinted PVC. The scooped-out waists and heightened hips were a sharp contrast to the easy, flowing pieces the New York label is known for, and that was the point. “This opposition was important to me,” says Smilovic. “The fundamental shift in attitude now is that if you want to shape your body, you can. If you don’t, then don’t.” Still, the designer was intrigued by the idea of turning shapewear on its head. “I love taking something with the rigid history of a corset, something that was hidden, and bringing it to the forefront.” Tibi wasn’t the only show with girded waists. At Marni, Francesco Risso riffed on the fluid lines of 19th-century stays with panelled tops covered in naive plaid and floral prints. Things took an edgier turn at Mugler, where denim corsets carved out models’ waists with taut seams. The look evoked Wonder Woman levels of power, but still one pondered how the models got any oxygen. The takeaway: What was once hidden (unless you are Madonna) is now front and centre.
Tibi spring/summer 2018 Image by: Imaxtree
Lauren Bitar, consultant at California-based retail-strategy firm RetailNext, credits brands like six-year-old Fleur du Mal with blurring the lines between what you wear out and what you wear under-neath. One of the label’s stretchy black bodysuits comes with tuxedo lapels that would pair well with a pencil skirt, while another, enticingly named the Satin Bullet, offers moulded cups and contoured seams. Undergarment or going-out top? There’s no need to decide.
When it comes to shopping for actual shapewear, and not just fashion that mimics it, the
millennial approach is different from previous generations’. “They want shapewear, but they want to be comfortable and look natural,” says Liliana Mann, founder of Rêve Rouge, a Toronto lingerie boutique geared toward younger shoppers. “They don’t want to look two sizes smaller. They don’t like Spanx or even the word ‘Spanx.’” Instead, Rêve Rouge carries cool-kid lines like Opaak, a German brand that uses fabrics made from recycled materi-als. Opaak’s high-waisted panties offer the kind of compression that’s subtle enough for daily wear, but, unlike Bridget Jones’ famously frumpy date-night undies, they also look good peeking out above the waistband of your Levi’s.
Fortnight, a Canadian brand carried at Rêve Rouge, among other shops, specializes in high-waisted bottoms, jersey slips and bodysuits that look like vintage lingerie but perform much like shapewear. The line uses stretch and non-stretch panels in strategic spots and breathable, moisture-wicking nylon to create garments that are functional, not restrictive. “Thanks to beautiful tailored fabrics, these pieces can be embraced, not thought of as a layer of oppression,” says Fortnight’s owner and designer, Christina Remenyi.
As our clothes become more and more casual, these throwback details can feel downright novel. Fledgling online brand Orseund Iris shot to Insta-fame when Bella Hadid was spotted wearing its jersey corset over a white dress shirt. Thanks to cheeky wiring that runs under the bust, the label’s corsets are subversive and unapologetic rather than constraining and secretive.
So, is it safe to declare that fashion has rebranded shapewear as a beacon of body positivity? Not so fast, says Bitar. “On one side, women are being open and real about their bodies, but at the same time we’re still torturing ourselves,” she says, pointing to the persistent popularity of so-called waist trainers, the corset-like cinchers that make dubious weight-loss claims. On Instagram, posts with the hashtag #waisttraining have almost hit one million, thanks in part to the endorsement of a certain Kardashian. “We’ve already been wearing corsets for hundreds of years—I don’t know why they’re getting a high-five,” adds Bitar. After all, it’s just another case of fashion prizing a narrow vision of beauty—literally.
If there’s one take on this trend that does deserve a high-five, it’s the Proenza Schouler outfit donned by Tracee Ellis Ross at a luncheon earlier this year. The actress wore a watermelon-hued skirt set accented with a leather harness bra overtop. The look read as neither fashion victim nor patriarchy dupe. “She’s owning her femininity and power,” says Ross’ stylist Karla Welch. “In a way, it’s like armour. It’s very Joan of Arc.”
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.