The latest fashion innovation is one of the oldest -- and most despised. Corsets, girdles and other garments designed to nip waists, tuck tummies and tighten thighs are shaping up as one of the biggest influences on current fashion.
Body shapers have been around for not just centuries, but eons. Historians say women in ancient Crete had iron bands soldered around their midsections to achieve the "ideal" 12-inch waist.
Now garments designed to squeeze, push and plump women's malleable parts to new dimensions of "perfection" are top news again in magazines, in lingerie departments and on feminists' hit lists.
Unlike their Victorian counterparts, women today aren't fainting because of rearranged organs and constricted lungs. The battle of the bulge is now fought with Lycra, not lacing and whalebone.
But as more women have rediscovered control garments, intimate apparel, a once-staid category, has become one of the few growth areas of the clothing business. Last spring's Wonderbra phenomenon boosted the bottom lines of many a bra- and panty-maker. This spring's revival of more fitted clothes may do the same for shape-wear makers. Some industry experts predict sales gains of 30 percent or more in the next six months.
Experts say that designers stirred the embers of our obsession with youth, beauty, diets and sex to create a bonfire of lingerie vanities. They stripped clothing down to its foundations, giving us slips as slinky dresses, bras as tiny tops and girdles as toning bike shorts.
The influence is pervasive. Jantzen's It Must Be Magic bust-lifting swimwear and SwimShaper's contouring Miraclesuit are swimming with the shaping tide. There's even a padded, push-up athletic bra from Marika.
"We used to call these things a girdle," says designer Carol Green of her best-selling item, a $60 thigh-length shaper from Aubergine.
"When the old girdle went out, so did the name," she says. "Now it's shape wear."
Women today can achieve virtually any silhouette they desire.
"It's part-specific now," says Nancy Ganz, whose Bodyslimmers Inc. makes a Butt Booster, Belly Buster, HipSlip and Waist Cincher.
"It's not about wearing a corset to hold your ribs in," she says, explaining her many inventions. "It's a look. And the technology today has improved greatly."
New fibers and construction advances that provide more comfort may be pushing the growing lingerie trend.
"Technology has allowed us to give them foundations that don't look like grandma's girdles," says Nancy Brennick, director of merchandising for Sara Lee Intimates.
Fashion experts say control lingerie was a phenomenon set to explode.
"Any marketing trend analysts we talk to talk about one very, very important trend they call morphism. We have this sense about ourselves that if we can't change our world, we can at least change ourselves," says Ms. Brennick.
Ms. Brennick knows something about morphism: She's the national spokeswoman for Sara Lee's Wonderbra and helped introduce it throughout the country last year.
With their lure of instant sexiness, it's no wonder the Wonderbra and its competitors drew so many customers.
"It's just like they like miracle creams. They want things that make them look better," says Ms. Ganz, who began Bodyslimmers in 1990 with the HipSlip. She invented it after finding nothing modern or pretty that could help slide her post-baby tummy into a tight, short skirt. Her subsequent inventions helped women fit into clothes that seemed to ignore the average-size woman.
Ms. Green, like Ms. Ganz, is a baby boomer with a post-baby tummy.
The pervasive images of perfect, exercise-toned young bodies have also made it difficult for real-life women to accept the natural contours of their bodies, especially the ones that develop with age.
Throughout the last decade, virtually any fashion trend that promises to revive the youth of aging baby boomers has found a grateful and growing audience. The last boomer turned 30 on Dec. 31. Every seven seconds for the next 18 years, someone will be turning 50, says Ms. Brennick.
It may seem odd that fashion is pushing sexy corsets to be seen at nightclubs when older women are buying figure-shapers to camouflage absences at the health club. This spring may be the apogee of lingerie, but it's also the convergence of a host of cultural trends. Namely:
* Control is tops: Women are confirmed control-top pantyhose wearers, says Howard Cooley, the chief executive officer of Danskin Inc. and its subsidiary, Pennaco Hosiery, maker of Round the Clock, Givenchy and other hosiery lines.
"Our most popular product is actually called Girdle Top hosiery," says Mr. Cooley. Women wear it, he says, because "it does make the line of your clothing more attractive, in many people's view.
"I also think it must be a habit, because so much of the hosiery business is control top. It's three-fourths of our business."
* But diets are a drag: "It's interesting, the timing of this upsurge in corsets and girdles. It comes at the same time that women are ditching their diets," says Karen Stimson, co-director of Largesse, a size-esteem network based in New Haven, Conn., noting the falling enrollments and financial difficulties of Jenny Craig and Nutri-System. Despite the success of fat-free foods, Americans are fatter than ever.
"The bottom line is, women are beginning to get the message that diets don't work. But when you stop dieting, you have to deal with the results. We have a whole generation of women rebounding from diets," says Ms. Stimson.
* Special dressing: Ms. Brennick of Sara Lee (the same company that makes cheesecake and coffeecake) also says women have readjusted their expectations.
"It used to be 'I'll go on a diet, I'll lose this and do 1,000 sit-ups a day.' Now we are realistic. For a special occasion dress, we'll pick out a control garment," she says. After trying the shape wear, she says, "they like the way it looks and they become wearers of more frequency."
Evening wear and other kinds of clothing often are designed to an ideal. Women will submit to shape wear, however confining it may be, to resemble those ideals.
* New acceptance: With the reemergence of contouring garments comes a fundamental psychological change, says Lauren Daniel-Falk, a trend analyst with RTW Review, a fashion trade publication.
"Now people think control garments are OK. They've become a very accepted look," she says. While women may accept that NTC stars like Demi Moore reshape their figures with surgeons or daily workouts with personal trainers, those options aren't appealing or available for the average woman, she says.
It's going be interesting what happens when the spring clothes hit stores. If the tight look fails, one thing's certain: Plenty of women will be breathing easier.