As life returns, so does Spanx

Shapewear sales, which tumbled early in the pandemic, are surging with Americans eager to lift, compress and smooth out their forms

Angela Williams has purged her closet of high heels, underwire bras and other fashion remnants that don’t serve the comfort-first mind-set she embraced during the pandemic. The Spanx stayed, though.

With in-person meetings and summer weddings creeping back onto her schedule, she expects her shapewear collection to grow. “I have to admit: I’m kind of excited about it,” the 46-year-old Boston-area finance professional said. “I’m excited about getting dressed up and smoothing out the bumps and lumps and rolls and looking good.”

Shapewear sales, which tumbled early in the pandemic as clothing choices became decidedly casual, are climbing again as Americans spring for waist-cinchers, bodysuits, tank tops and slimming panties in hopes of compressing, lifting and squeezing their way back into their pre-pandemic forms.

Shapermint, an online retailer that pulls in nearly 20 percent of U.S. shapewear sales, says its revenue in the category has doubled in the last month, driven by demand for high-waisted shaper panties and shorts. Kim Kardashian West’s Skims, which hit shelves in late 2019 shortly before the coronavirus crisis disrupted business and social life, has sold more than 4 million pieces and grown into a $1.6 billion brand, catapulting the reality TV star onto the Forbes billionaires list. And Spanx, the industry’s biggest success story, is seeing dramatic sales spikes, particularly for its maximum-sculpting OnCore line.

“Normal life is slowly returning and as people venture out into the world, they are looking for a little hug,” said Sara Blakely, the company’s founder and chief executive.

The return to such garments, fashion psychologists and historians say, reflects a larger shift to dressing for others instead of just for ourselves. Yet humans have been manipulating their bodies for thousands of years, with statues of Sumerian snake goddesses sheathed in corset-like garments providing one of the earliest examples, said Alanna McKnight, a historian in Toronto. Later iterations included girdles and corsets made of whalebone, iron and leather.

Shapewear through the ages

Stays (corset) • France

circa 1750

Corset • USA

circa 1889

And though modern shapewear — generally seamless, with ample stretch — is more comfortable than its predecessors, the underlying premise remains the same: to “correct the body” to conform to fashion and society, said Denis Bruna, a curator at Musée des Arts Décoratifs Paris and author of “Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette.”

People use shapewear for the “exact same reason they used to wear corsets: Because mainstream fashion does not fit real bodies,” said McKnight, the historian. “As people prepare to go back into the world, it’s easier to slap on a pair of Spanx and suck it in artificially than it is to get in marathon shape.”

Candyce Lindsay, a health care auditor in Tempe, Ariz., has continued wearing Spanx throughout the pandemic. She’s been hooked on shapewear since giving birth nearly 30 years ago, she said, and has a drawerful ranging “from cheapies at Walmart to the more expensive ones at Nordstrom.” She’s bought control-top underwear during the pandemic and plans to spring for more mid-thigh shorts as normal life resumes.

“I haven’t abandoned Spanx,” the 59-year-old said. “Even though I’m working from home, I’m on a lot of calls, and I like to look my best, period.”

At Spanx, the shapewear resurgence comes after it spent much of the last year playing up leggings, activewear and pajamas, according to Blakely. Consumers still want comfort, she said, but also want to create the illusion of slimmer waists, perkier bottoms and flatter bellies.

“Women haven’t given up shapewear in several centuries,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst for Forrester. “Do we really think the pandemic will change things? It’s not like our concept of beauty or a shapely figure have changed in one year.”

The shift has even caught the attention of late-night television hosts: “You know more people are vaccinated when pajama sales go down and Spanx go up,” Jimmy Fallon recently quipped.

Strouse and Adler Co. girdle • USA

circa 1920

Warner’s “Merry Widow” corset • USA

circa 1957

Spanx, which hit the market in 2000, quickly became a household name, making it onto Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list and bringing in $4 million in its first year. Sales climbed rapidly — to nearly $250 million by 2012, making Blakely, at 41, the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. (She dropped off Forbes’s billionaires list last year, and now has an estimated net worth of about $610 million.)

Today the brand is nearly synonymous with shapewear, transforming the once-sleepy category into a $500 million-a-year industry, according to market research firm NPD Group. Spanx also has become a cultural touchpoint, with celebrities such as Padma Lakshmi, Katy Perry and Chrissy Teigen gushing over their undergarments on red carpets and social media.

Shapewear brand MeMoi, which sells its products at hundreds of retailers including Macy’s, is seeing increased demand for bodysuits, control-top fishnet tights and other slimming pieces during what has been “a roller coaster of a year,” said Karen Cohen, the company’s director of sales and business development.

After a 30 percent drop-off in sales at the beginning of the pandemic, she said, executives were surprised to find that consumers were snapping up shaping capris and sports bras to wear as leisurewear. The company quickly introduced a line of seamless activewear that also lifts the buttocks and reduces the appearance of back and belly fat, and expanded its maternity line, which offers extra back support. Demand is rising by about 35 percent in just about every category of shapewear, Cohen said.

“As more people go back to their everyday lives, maybe they’re carrying a little extra baggage and are looking for more shaping,” she said. “When I speak to our national retailers, every single one of them says shapewear has been up in the last quarter.”

But a year of comfort-focused dressing, analysts say, will have a long-term effect on the industry. Many companies say they are having to market their products differently, with more of an eye toward everyday wear. Brands are also creating more stand-alone products — such as control-top tank tops and compression leggings that can be worn while lounging around the house.

Vanity Fair bra and panty girdle • USA

circa 1962

Spanx OnCore High-Waisted Mid-Thigh Short • USA

circa 2000s

“Shapewear, in the past, was presented as something for weddings or special events,” said Massimiliano Tirocchi, who co-founded Shapermint in 2018. “Now we’re showing it as something you can wear even if you’re working from home.”

Sales of wireless bras, which tend to be more comfortable than underwire varieties, are up threefold from a year ago. Demand for compression camisoles rose sharply during the pandemic because consumers “want to feel confident and in control,” he said.

At Skims, known for its range of sizes and skin-toned shades, shapewear sales have been on a tear since February, according to co-founder Jens Grede. Last month, the brand opened its first pop-up in Los Angeles, where it sold 12,000 pieces — or about three per minute — in its first week.

Roy Thomas bought his first Skims waist trainer just before the pandemic, to wear when he went clubbing or out with friends. A few months later, he bought a second one and has started wearing it just about everywhere: To work, the grocery store and out for lunch. Though Spanx and other brands, including Under Armour, sell men’s compressionwear — traditionally marketed as athletic clothing that helps with muscle recovery — Thomas says he prefers Skims because it offers variety of cuts.

“I use it pretty much any time I leave the house,” said Thomas, 22, a singer-songwriter in Murrieta, Calif. “Now that the world is starting to open, I want to invest in more.”

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About this story

Illustrations based on images from The Museum at FIT. Design by Beth Broadwater.

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