While shapewear is often thought of as utilitarian, boring, or even torturous, I believe it can be a fun and fashionable way to experiment with transformation. Shapewear today can lift the bust, nip the waist, and pad the rear, letting you play with proportions and silhouettes that might otherwise require going under the knife. No matter your reason for wearing shapewear, it should help you feel like the best version of yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Here’s a breakdown of the different types of shapewear and how to choose what works for you.
TYPES OF SHAPEWEAR
You’re probably already familiar with some of the most popular types of shapewear, like control slips and shaping panties, but I think it’s important to know the full range of what’s available. After all, you never know when you might discover a new favorite!
Arm shapers have fallen slightly out of favor in recent years, but they’re worth a mention precisely because they’re so specific. Also known as compression sleeves and slimming sleeves, arm shapers sculpt the arms from the shoulders down. Apart from the toning effects, many people even report improved posture from arm shapers, which serve as a reminder to keep their shoulders back. Arm shapers are typically available in elbow-length, three-quarter, and full-length (to the wrist) styles.
Bodysuits look like leotards or one-piece bathing suits. They’re excellent for smoothing the torso and abdomen, and some even offer additional support and shaping to the rear and bust. While many bodysuits come with a built-in bra for maximum one-stop shopping, some bodysuits now give you the option of wearing your own bra — an ideal option for the more fuller-busted who may find the typical built-in bra to be inadequate. Some body briefers even come with longer legs (shorts or pants length) to help shape and smooth the thighs.
Bustiers were incredibly popular for formalwear during the 1950s as their long waistlines helped support and lift the bust in the strapless and low-backed evening gowns of the day. Bustiers are usually bra-sized and offer torso and waist shaping in addition to breast support. Because of this, bustiers are a popular undergarment choice for brides.
Control Briefs/Shaping Panties
Control briefs are like a bodysuit without the top portion. Shaping underwear is perfect for giving a smooth line to the low waist and pelvis, as well as lifting and sculpting the bottom. Almost all control briefs are either high-waisted (to the navel) or very high-waisted (to the ribs) for maximum shaping. Some styles even have clips or snaps to attach the shaping panty to your favorite bra. Very high-waisted styles give the most coverage and help ensure a smooth line from the bra band to the hip. If briefs aren’t your style, consider a high-waisted shaping thong, which will have a shaping panel for the waist and tummy, but offer no shaping to the bottom, of course!
Leg Shapers/Shaping Leggings/Shaping Shorts/Thigh Shapers
Leg shapers and shaping shorts are like bike shorts and leggings on steroids. Some people even wear their shaping shorts to the gym, though I wouldn’t recommend it! Shaping shorts focus on the lower area of the body, specifically targeting the hips, rear, and thighs. Leg shapers extend from the thighs to sculpt the knees, calves, and lower legs as well. High-waisted versions of leg shapers, which rise above the navel and extend toward the rib cage, also smooth the stomach. Many present-day shapewear companies sell opaque leg shapers as everyday leggings so that you can have the support of shapewear combined with the comfort of loungewear.
A body briefer without a bottom, a shaping camisole smooths the upper body, often focusing on the back, ribs, underarms, and stomach for a sleeker look. Many people like to layer shaping camisoles under thin blouses or T-shirts, as they not only sculpt the torso but also help to hide bra lines, which is especially useful for seamed or cut-and-sew bras.
Shaping Slips/Corselettes/Shaping Dresses
Extremely popular between the 1930s and 1950s, a shaping slip is an all-in-one garment that combines a bra or camisole top with a girdle bottom. Shaping half-slips lack the upper body portion and usually start at the waist and end right above or just at the knees. Like body briefers, shaping dresses are a full body-sculpting option, smoothing the torso, waist, thighs, hips, and rear. Some shaping dresses include built-in bras as well, although wearing your own bra is an increasingly popular option.
Like the bustier, the waist cincher is a contemporary equivalent to the corset, but focuses exclusively on the waist by nipping it in from the sides and flattening the torso from the front. Waist cinchers usually begin right under the bra band area and end below the waist, near the high hip. The most extreme waist cinchers are called fajas. Made from latex, with the ability to take in the waist by at least a couple inches, they’re not for the faint of heart. Some people choose to wear their waist cinchers as belts, especially styles made with beautiful laces, prints, and fabrics.
HOW TO SHOP FOR SHAPEWEAR
1. Don’t buy shapewear that’s too small
I don’t have many rules when it comes to shapewear, but this is one, I’m afraid I really do have to insist on. Many people buy shapewear a size too small because they believe tighter shapewear is more effective shapewear. That is not true. Apart from the comfort factor, too-tight shapewear can result in nerve damage, digestive issues, and even skin infections. It’s not worth it! Always start by trying the size suggested for your measurements on the size chart. For most brands, this will mean knowing your waist and hip measurements. If you try a brand and it happens to run a little larger than expected, then by all means, try a smaller size. But please don’t suffer or even potentially injure yourself by wearing shapewear that’s too tight. If you want more shaping power, keep in mind that shapewear has several different strengths — light, medium, firm, and extra firm. If you want more of a shaping effect, considering going up a strength level before going down a size.
2. Focus on one area at a time
While all-in-one shapers and slips are efficient, especially if you don’t want to purchase multiple pieces or only want light smoothing, they’re not as effective as shapewear that focuses on one specific area of the body. Prioritize the areas you want to shape and then purchase shapewear made for those exact places.
If your breasts are uneven by a cup size or more, fit your bra or shapewear to the larger breast and use a cookie or pad to fill out the cup for the smaller breast. These are usually sold in pairs and may be made of foam, gel, or silicone. Most cookies are sold in a single size (one size fits all), but some are sold by cup size (such as A/B or C/D) or as S, M, L, or XL. As with any lingerie item, reference the size chart of the brand you’re interested in before buying.
3. Expect smoothing, not slimming
Most shapewear today won’t cause dramatic changes in the way you look, but it can help give you a smooth line under clothing, especially for figure-hugging garments. Be wary of shapewear that promises dramatic effects like weight loss. Usually, those claims are either outright false or a side effect of losing water weight — which could leave you dangerously dehydrated!
4. Consider vintage-inspired shapewear
Yes, I’m talking about girdles, which provide maximum shaping and body contouring, especially for retro-style fashions. There are still companies that specialize in making the kind of lingerie your grandparents used to wear. Key search terms include corselette, open bottom girdle, longline girdle, panty girdle, waist cincher, waist nipper, waspie, and body briefer.
5. Be patient
As with everything lingerie related, remember it may take a few tries before you find the brand or style that’s perfect for you. Every company is different, and experimentation is the norm, not the exception. If at all possible, try going to a well-stocked department store or lingerie boutique. There’s just no substitute for trying on things in person.
Adapted from In Intimate Detail by Cora Harrington, copyright (c) 2018. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.
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