My mother wore a girdle. She was born in 1917, so this was completely normal; most women of her generation did. Girdles served two purposes: to subdue one’s jiggly bits into a trim, tidy shape and to hold up one’s stockings. Mom thus wore one not only as a working woman in the ʼ40s, but as a suburban housewife in the ʼ50s. Though the June-Cleaver-vacuuming-in-high-heels-and-pearls meme is obviously a caricature, it reflected the reality of the era: pants were not the norm for adult women then. Laura Petrie and her pedal pushers, a few year later, were shockingly modern.
I was born in 1954, so wore skirts to school during my elementary- and middle-school years. By the time I made the transition from knee socks in sixth grade to sheer hose in seventh, pantyhose had become mainstream, so I was saved the experience of struggling with either girdle or garter belt. (Pantyhose were invented in the late ʼ50s, but didn’t really start catching on till the mid ʼ60s, when improvements in technology made them cheaper and more comfortable, and when hemlines started their precipitous climb.)
Having escaped the tyranny of our mothers’ girdles, most women of my generation had no interest in adopting them for daily wear. Constrictive lingerie didn’t completely disappear, of course; it morphed into costume and moved out from under one’s clothes, most famously with Madonna’s Gaultier corset in 1990. But for normal wear, most of us went no further than, maybe, control top pantyhose.
Such free-breathing happiness couldn’t last forever. In 1998, Sara Blakely cut the feet off her pantyhose and created Spanx, the spandex-laden “shapewear” that has made her a billionaire. Giving her garment a faux-naughty brand name, rather than the phonologically ugly “girdle,” was a brilliant marketing move, because the garment itself is as difficult to don and doff as anything our mothers (or grandmothers) wore.
What sealed Blakely’s success, though, was the endorsement of America’s most famous dieter, Oprah Winfrey, who named Spanx as one of her famous “favorite things” in 2000. She was merely the first: most often-photographed women have embraced them as well.
Anecdotes about wearing Spanx on the red carpet have become a staple of the daytime talk show, at least those hosted by women. Octavia Spencer, for instance, told Ellen DeGeneres that she’d worn not one pair but two (or was it three?) on the night she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Clearly, with sales estimated around $250 million per year, paparazzi posers aren’t the only ones wearing Spanx — which, by the way, now come in styles for pregnant women (because God forbid a pregnant woman should look, yanno, pregnant) and men.
So who is wearing them? Not “everyone but me,” I am relieved to learn. Good Housekeeping polled its Facebook followers and discovered that 79 percent of them eschew Spanx.