Girdles for men? Beer-bellied guys are taking a cue from the ladies.

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; C01

Further signs of the impending apocalypse: Men's girdles are now all the rage.

They call it "men's shapewear," true, but ladies, we know that you know from long and tummy-tucking experience what that really means.

Spanx for Men -- undershirts that fit and feel like a wet suit -- debuted to such testosterone-fueled success this year that the company is coming out with a line of (gulp) bottoms for the fall. The cotton compression undershirt "helps with the love handles and beer belly and man boobs -- or 'moobs,' as we call them," says Maggie Adams, public relations manager for Spanx.

An Australian company, Equmen, started up last year and will sell you a male-model-worthy "core precision undershirt" for a cool $99 (the company's products are touted by manly man and Washington Redskins punter Josh Bidwell. "I tried one of their shirts earlier this year to help with back issues I had from playing golf, and it works just great. Really holds your core in place, supports the upper shoulders, particularly when you're working out.")

On Amazon, you can find the "Mens Belly Buster Athletic Supporter Girdle," the sound of which makes us squirm in our seats, but why go online? There are at least two companies using late-night infomercials to offer gentlemen of discerning taste "compression shirts" for their "problem areas." You can see how they work from the comfort of your own couch, then get up for another beer!

For the low, low price of $19.95 (plus $7.95 shipping and handling), you can get SlimTs, which use "special spandex-blend fibers" to make you (or the man in your life) "look firmer" with "no diets, no exercise" and "no gym memberships!"

But wait! There's more!

The "Insta Slim Muscle Tanks" (available for a limited time for only $29.90, plus $9.95 shipping and handling) will help you "flatten your stomach, redefine your chest, eliminate your love handles"!

All while still being that lovable bowl of Jell-O you are!

"Men's shapewear is one of the few up-and-coming trends you can actually put your hands on," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the market research firm NPD Group.

While the term "men's shapewear" probably didn't exist in the Mark Twain era, this sort of thing isn't entirely new. Men who went for the cosmopolitan dandy look in the late 19th century in Europe and the States were known to sometimes wear some type of binding undergarment. And the history of men's fashion, broadly stated, has been a search to accentuate the male ideal of the V-shaped body -- broad shoulders, narrow hips -- whether in medieval armor or the modern suit.

Staples of gym wear

But the trend toward undergarments that make men look more svelte than they actually are began over the past decade or so, with lycra or spandex bicycle shorts and other tight, form-fitting sports gear, Cohen said. These clothes, such as polyester gear that wicks sweat away from the skin, help athletes reduce wind friction and improve circulation (and warmth on cold days). They began to be staples of gym wear. From there, it wasn't much of a leap for men to notice that the garments could hold in jiggly flesh around the stomach and chest -- places where men tend to put on flab or lose muscle tone.

"Some of this has evolved from guys who already look pretty good who want muscle shirts that don't look like they're from the 1950s," he said. "When Nike and Under Armour started getting into the compression shirt or close-fitting garment business, way back to the Bo Jackson ads, guys noticed that it enhanced their look."

Indeed, Equmen ("Equality for Men") markets its product as much as for athletes as Pete Potato-Belly, saying that its high-end garments amount to a healthy life-style choice, improving posture and back support, as well as a "noticeably slimmer appearance."

(To see for ourselves, we dutifully plunked down $58 for a Spanx compression shirt, opting for a tasteful black V-neck. We discovered it's not a T-shirt and it will snap back like a rubber band if you stretch it. We banged our nose trying to pull it over our head. It felt like wearing a wet suit, only you don't get to go to the beach.)

Undergarments' impact

Sales of men's undergarments have been fluctuating over the past couple of years, NPD data show, but the field recorded 0.5 percent growth in units sold in 2009, to end with 1.53 billion units sold. (Sales of women's intimates, for comparison, were up 1 percent last year, ending with 3.49 billion units sold.) Men's shapewear, with more than a dozen companies marketing various forms of shirts or underwear that hold the belly in, perk up the bottom or narrow the waist, are a small part of the uptick, Cohen said.

Nonetheless, the garments' impact is being felt, according to some retailers.

"They've done incredibly well for us," says Liberty Jones, the public relations manager for Neiman Marcus at Mazza Gallerie. "This is a very nice tool that men now have. It gives you confidence."

The store in Northwest Washington isn't hiding the things behind the counter -- they're featured in an in-store display, right out by the coats and ties.

Mariam Ma, who created the Canadian-based online warehouse Mens Girdle Store last year, says the things are selling not just to lumpy 40-somethings but to slim young dudes who want a perfect silhouette.

"Have you seen those skinny suits they are wearing that's in fashion today?" she said. "Not a lot of people can pull that off without help."

Houshang Jalili, president of California-based Insta Slim, was one of the pioneers of the field. He debuted his "ISA collection" of men's shapewear -- essentially spandex-type T-shirts in crew neck, V-neck or tank top -- in 2008 to instant success. He did so after working in women's swimwear for 25 years.

"I noticed the tummy control suits sold so much better than the other ones," he said, "so I thought it would be good to try it for men. . . . I would say about 65 percent I sell directly to men, and about 35 percent are to women buying for their husbands or boyfriends."

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