A Superficial Conformity

Il faut souffrir pour être belle
(One must suffer to be beautiful)

The purpose of clothing, we are taught, is to protect our extremities from the environment, particularly harsher climatic conditions. Initially, it was natural materials; most popularly, leather. Later on, we started using plant and animal fibre; weaving them into fabric. Based on archaeology, the Near East has used natural fibres as cotton and wool for clothing from as far back as 8000 BC. Woodblock printing on silk (2700 BC) in China, beginning circa 200 AD seems to mark the introduction of vain aspects to clothing. While this is pertinent to this piece, I am at present more ruminant of shapewear. 

Timeline of Clothing Fabrics
A Timeline of Textiles

Functional clothing does fit the body better, and nomadic practices did warrant this of even leather clothing. This is possibly best demonstrated by native Northern American wear, where fabric was often bound about the limbs and frame, even stitched with needles by means of porcupine quills. Shapewear though, is a far more frivolous endeavour for the most part. The object is to mould the body into a desirable form, and while a good bra or brassiere seems akin to a back brace, more often than not even the appearance of the undergarment is fussed upon.  

‘Desirable’ is an ambiguous term, and I have addressed it in A Beautiful Woman and A Cover Story as per its common use to denote attractiveness especially to the opposite gender. There is perhaps the more accurate interpretation, which ties into fashion trends. Both seem to have factored in quite heavily on shapewear.

History of Shapewear

The first instance of shapewear, seems to be the corset, which in my eyes is a larger belt. The belt itself, while associated with holstery for weapons, is still explored as an instrument to prevent back injuries. In a simpler view, it structures the fabric around one’s frame better, which will of course prevent the fabric from falling all over the place nuisancically. The corset itself, seemingly originating from ancient Greece, or rather Crete, was designed so as to bring in the waist and push out the bust, accentuating both the bust and the buttocks or hips. The ensuing Hellenic Greek variation, was the metallic decorated girdle, which in the most basic form was simply a sash or belt used to shape and hold up clothing. In Greek mythology, girdles were associated with the magical prowess of ancient matriarchs such as the Amazonian Queen and Aphrodite. Pertaining to the latter in particular, was a bejewelled variation that made the wearer irresistible.

The Ancient Roman standard for female beauty appears to have been a slender figure, with proportionally smaller breasts and wider hips. To achieve this, perhaps the first instance of the bra was employed, by way of breast binders called strophium, which were simply cloth bands wrapped tightly around the bust. I do wonder if the smaller busts are supposed to be of younger virgin women, who would have constituted the eligible population and heroins of romantic folklore. It is usually the case that women’s breasts enlargen during pregnancy. Although, the binders now seem to serve another purpose for when they shrink post-partum. Aesthetic or not, a good bra is still indispensable as a comfort aid for women, especially when we’re curvier.

Then there was Medieval Europe, where fashion and torture devices appear to have intertwined into structured shapewear. It was the French after all who said, “one must suffer to be beautiful”.  During the Middle Ages, women wore tightly laced bodices meant to shrink and sculpt their form. It did seem, particularly in England, that the desired form was that of the monarchs. During the Elizabethan Era, steel was employed in corsetry to achieve a flatter more cylindrical or conical torso, with a higher bustline. Petticoats usually of wool or silk, lined with stiffer fabrics were meant to create the appearance of wider hips. During the ensuing Victorian Era, corsets of heavy canvas with whale bone or steel were employed to achieve a voluptuous bosom, and tiny waistline.

Much like the ancient Oriental practice of lotus feet, such heavy corsets would have limited the mobility of women. As such, we may deduce that they were used prominently by noble women, while commoners were clad more practically as conducive for performing chores. Frivolous, indeed. With the onset of World War I, metal was required for ammunition. Corsetry gave way to svelte, or boyish silhouettes, perhaps inspired by soldiers who were in large part young men. As per the popular term, flapper, the materials were lighter and forms were shapeless. With World War II, the girdle made a return but with lighter stretchy fabrics that clung to the frame, spanning below the hips to smooth out and even flatten the figure. Shapewear even had a practical purpose, with secret pockets sewn in to hide important items and documents, which really could have been a fad drawn out from news regarding espionage.

The ensuing years, saw the rise and fall of varying aesthetics. What more, they do differ geographically as well, as mentioned in A Beautiful Woman. In more recent years, there does seem to be more of a focus on health, and embracing one’s form. While experimenting with looks can accommodate for reasonable shape manipulation such as plunging, padded, push-up or backless bras, vanities should not impinge on comfort so much. What more they do pose health threats when overdone. The least of concern with shapewear is actually skin irritation and conditions such as folliculitis, as is true for makeup or even beauty treatments. Natural allergies aside, the fabric touches the skin the most, and due to synthetic elastics, it doesn’t ‘breathe’ as much as natural fibres. The dexterity of (un)dressing when using shapewear on its own can cause us to hold in our nature’s calls, which in turn results in urinary track infections. The compression of internal organs comes with a host of physical harm including acid reflux, gas or bloating, incontinence and hyperventilation. The restriction of blood to one’s lower half can cause tingling, pain and numbness in the legs, blood clots and varicose veins which further inhibit blood flow, and ingrown hair.

Shapewear Health Hazards

Are these health threats as dangerous as dietary fads, and eating disorders? Mentally, they stem from a lack of self-esteem, and can lead to physical strife. As such, I say yes. One’s own predispositions aside, the physical symptoms of obesity such as high blood pressure and light-headedness from high or low blood glucose levels, can make daily activities challenging; thus, aggravating the mental state. It does take a lifestyle change, to address that sort of health issue. It needs to be deliberately taken on, paced as manageable and stuck to as rigidly as with medication. Often, it does help to consult a physician for more than medicine.  I suppose it is possible to get a liposuction every few years or so, if one has the wealth to do so, and while they’re under the knife it is possible to correct for every other physical undesired feature; doesn’t seem healthy, though.

On the other hand, as much debate as there is about the actual use of bras, from experience I can say that a good bra is an investment in comfort. The breasts do have muscle tissue, and like any other muscle they are susceptible to fatigue as is aggravated by movement alone. For ages, we women have massaged our breasts in order to keep them perky. Those of us with larger busts tend to have strains and pain in the neck, shoulders and backs. As such a good bra does seem to be much like a back brace. It does provide welcome support, and while it might take some getting used to, as long as it actually fits properly, it feels much like a sports guard or compression wear; tight, but comfortable and secure. Much like such sports gear, as much as they aid comfort and provide structural support, bras don’t alleviate injury or rather tissue damage which can happen with age alone. With ample coverage for one’s bust, there is no uncontained flesh, which can be painful and lead to bruising in addition to being unsightly. What more, the skin itself not touching and rubbing as much, both in the cleavage and below the bust, is healthy. A further plus, is that it does enhance one’s physical appearance painlessly, by virtue of framing rather than moulding. Pretty doesn’t have to hurt.

As much as we women require functionality and ample support from our clothing, it is common to have pretty lacy undergarments. So aesthetically appealing are these things that we don under whatever garment we choose for the day. It does almost seems pointless, but I like having things to and for myself. In a way, it is self love; feeling pretty for the sake of it, rather than just in the eyes of another. Additionally, I do mind what colour my undergarments are, and it isn’t as simple as how thick or what colour my clothing is, although for the most part my colour schemes are quite neutral. I think of it as akin to aroma therapy. Placebo, you say? It makes me measurably happy, I say…as is the ultimate aim of therapy. Even in more medical terms, who feels unhappy when they’re healthier? Endorphins are a good thing, after all.

I also happen to know for a fact that it is quite common a trait to fuss over undergarments past functionality, speaking for us curvier girls especially. Clothes can pinch and bare more than is appropriate. It can be as simple as a fold or spill of flesh, the lacing or even colour of the bra or brassiere. I often resort to an additional layer or slip, as I have done since pre-teen years, to account for this. This is a more pressing and practical concern, especially in professional settings. I touched on this in Queen of Hearts as well. As such, we do pay closer attention to aesthetic, even when the garment itself holds our figures adequately, both in terms of comfort and modesty.

One observation I find interesting is, other than feet binding, the pre-colonial East doesn’t seem to have used shapewear. Perhaps this is more congruent with the available materials in the different parts; not to mention leather would age faster in warmer climates. On the other hand, the use of fibre as fabric, along with dyes, prints and weaves do seem to originate from Eastern regions. I will save the contemplation of fabrics particularly in feminine apparel for a later piece. Returning to this piece though, I am a proponent of the gentler form embracing shapewear. Rather than altering the body’s apparent size, it smooths out our natural form, and supports both flesh and frame. I kid you not, the posture improvement is not just due to a vain confidence, it is a sign of physical comfort. Generally, it is more superficial than any, to concern oneself at all with shapewear. Having said that, a part of the latest health trends includes curve embracing. Curviness isn’t the same as fatness; nonetheless, we are being encouraged as women to revel in our natural forms. I don’t find this too practical when we are curvier even. The addition of weight does beckon for more care with clothing in order to achieve personal physical comfort. I will admit, that as much as this comfort speaks of our own individuality, it does also impinge on others’ reactions to us upon visual perception. Presentation is, after all, still key. It can be pesky, but for now, I have no real plans to get anything reduced. And so, I suffer the plights of my plus sized being. Sometimes, it is more hassle than it’s worth, but I am only human and…let her who has never made a stylistic mistake, cast the first judgement.


See also: A Beautiful Woman, A Cover Story, Queen of Hearts

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