Shapewear, the millennial version of grandma's girdle, is boosting confidence -- as well as body parts.
"I stand taller in my Spanx," said Heather Axtman, 28. One of the younger employees in the Eagan office of Thomson Reuters, Axtman regularly wriggles into firming undergarments to get a look that won't undermine her professionalism.
"When I'm at work, I don't want my booty shaking. It's inappropriate," she said. "I'm not trying to hide my curves, but work is not the place for your body to say, 'Look what I got!'"
It's Fat City for the smooth-you-out and suck-you-in business. Women's Wear Daily estimated that shapewear sales grew to $848.3 million in 2010. That means an unprecedented number of waists, thighs, buttocks and stomachs are being nipped and cinched.
Some peg the revival of shapewear to Spanx, which made founder Sara Blakely a billionaire and set the pace for the industry. From the start, the Spanx collections carried a sassy, sexy attitude, with slyly named garments like Undie-tectables, the Slimcognito bodysuit and the Slimplicity waist shaper.
Now customers can girdle their loins (and other body parts) at department stores, discounters and online, with Flexees, Assets and Yummie Tummies. And it's not something that needs to be kept under wraps. A growing number of celebrities are lending their names to customized lines, including Skinnygirl Shapers from Bethenny Frankel, Skweez Couture by Jill Zarin and Ch'Arms by Kathy Najimy.
There is athletic shapewear that purports to tone wearers while they exercise. And there's no need to opt out during pregnancy. An ad for the Power Mama Maternity Shaper from Spanx focuses on under-belly and lower back support, but also mentions that the one-piece, over-the-bump and down-to-the-knee garment "smooths hips, thighs and rear for a firmer appearance."
From loathing to loyalty
Of course, seeking a firmer appearance from unmentionables is nothing new.
"This is the latest renaming of the foundation garment," said Marilyn DeLong, who teaches fashion history at the University of Minnesota's College of Design. "Women who wore girdles the last time are not the women who are wearing these. It feels new to these women because they haven't experienced it before."
During the girdle's last go-round, the garment was regarded with resignation at best, dread at worst. Commercials from the 1960s and '70s show spokeswomen grimly extolling the virtues of the garments: that they didn't bind or pinch. Playtex even introduced a "My girdle is killing me!" campaign to sell a version that promised a less punishing fit.
Instead of loathing their foundation garments, today many women are loyal to them.
"I'm a happy customer," said Deborah Fiscus, a 40ish Minneapolis wardrobe and costume stylist in the local commercial and film business. "I wear shapewear every day. I want to look good now, not after I've gone to the gym for six months. Someone once told me, 'You're the firmest fat girl I ever met.' I took that as a compliment."
Not only does she wear them herself, Fiscus outfits models and actresses for work on camera or on stage in firming wear.
"A lot of women need ... redirection," she said. "Even fit women have bumps that need smoothing. All the size-zero stars wear it."
Working as a wardrobe assistant on "A Serious Man," the 2009 Coen Brothers movie filmed in the Twin Cities, Fiscus helped extras get tricked out in authentic 1967 fashions, down to the skin.
"If they came out of the dressing room quickly, it meant the girdle went on too easily," she said. "We sent them back with a smaller one. If they didn't suffer, it wasn't right."
Back to the future
The movie was set at the end of the era when fashion and feminism collided. That collision ultimately ended the girdle's grip on American women.
"By the '70s, the natural jiggle was a visible way for women to shake off society's restrictions. They were looking for physical ways to say, 'We won't be controlled,'" said Suzanne Hendricks, retired professor of fashion history at St Catherine's University.
Losing the form-fitting undergarments was practical as well as political.
"It was the pantsuit and pantyhose that really signaled the demise of the girdle for working woman," Hendricks continued. "Girdles did more than hold you in, they had garters to hold up stockings. Pantyhose -- especially control-top pantyhose -- had the same function as a girdle. Today, bare legs are the fashion and fewer women wearing pantyhose is part of what has created this market."
Not everyone is going for the new generation of girdle. Joanne Liebeler, 54, bought her first shapewear, a midriff slimming camisole, for a recent on-camera appearance. The longtime home improvement television host described it as "overly snug."
"Some people get used to it," she said. "Not me."
The bulge in shapewear sales coincides with statistics showing that Americans have never been heavier. And that leads Suzanne Hendricks to suspect that the fashion pendulum will swing again.
"We go through stages where clothes are tight and then they aren't," she said. "When clothes are tightly fitting, we look for ways to make that line smoother. When women wear looser shifts, fuller skirts and more fully legged pants rather than skinny jeans, we don't. That looser look will come back. It always does."
Kevyn Burger of Minneapolis is a broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.