Shapewear: The history, its significance and the leading brands currently

Shapewear has a long history, from undergarments to essential items used by different bodies and sizes to achieve various finished looks without fear of flab or undesirable linings.

What is shapewear?

The history of shapewear is considered to have started with the girdle since as early as 1600 BC. Since then, the girdle has undergone multiple interpretations to eventually become what is worn today.

So, in order to appreciate the functionality of shapewear today, it is important to trace back the history of this undergarment and the different purposes it served throughout its evolution.

From Ancient Greek girdles to the first bra

The first form of what we come to know as shapewear is considered to have started with the Ancient Greeks and their invention of the girdle. These were garments which were either made from firm linen fabric, wool or soft leather material.

The design of these girdles was aimed at pushing out the decolletage and cinching the waist by clinching it, which gave the effect of slimming the waist. Thereafter, the Ancient Romans are considered as the second civilization to interpret the girdle.

The Ancient Romans are believed to have designed the first interpretation of the corset. The aim of a corset was to emphasise a cinched waist.

The Ancient Romans’ design of the corset was initially of a strip of cotton or linen material wrapped around the bust area, in order to flatten the cleavage.

At the time, women’s desirability was defined by small busts and emphasised curves. However, as innovation on the corset continued, the style of the Ancient Romans corset also changed.

From what was once considered underwear, corsets then became a fashion accessory worn over clothes. These corsets were embroidered and embellished with flowers and decorative elements.

The corsets were then worn with Roman robes in the style of the time. It would only be in the sixteenth century when the steel corset would first be documented.

During the Elizabethan era, corsets made out of steel were in fashion, popularised by the dominance of Queen Elizabeth. These corsets were usually made out of precious metals like silver, gold and steel.

The aim of this style of corsets was to flatten the bust. It was only when the advent of the whalebone corset during the Victorian era did the emphasis shift to accentuating the bust area.

It was during the Victorian era that the whalebone corset gave rise to the hourglass figure, which still dominates as the popular body shape to date.

The whalebone corsets were made from whale bones, steel and other hard metals. The design of the whalebone corset cinched the waist, while pushing out the bust area.

However, the paradigm shift in shapewear design is considered to have been in 1914, when the patent for the modern-day bra was filed.

Mary Phelps, in November 1914, patented the design for a brassiere, which was designed to replace the corset.

The inspiration for the design came from frustration by Phelps of wearing a corset. Phelps was not the first to patent a design of a bra.

However, her design of two pocket handkerchiefs tied together with a pink ribbon did mark a paradigm shift in the design of shapewear. The aim was to only confine the required areas, without the discomfort of being confined elsewhere.

From the first bra to the advent of spandex

Phelps’ design of what we have come to know as the bra marked a shift in the design of corsets. Although, it is the World Wars which are believed to have catalysed the advent of contemporary designs of shapewear.

When World War l (WWl) took place, women were asked to stop wearing corsets which were made out of steel.

The purpose was to garner more reserves to make weapons and build ships. Fun fact, when patriotic women did comply, it is reported that 28 000 pounds of steel was freed up. This was enough steel to build two ships.

As a result, by the 1920s, the fashionable body aesthetic for women was the “boyish” figure. Therefore, the corsets cinched and narrowed the waist, while flattening the bust area.

It was only during the second World War (WWll) that there was another change in the fashionable women’s figure. This was furthered by the innovation in elastic.

As WWll took place, women and men were rationing. For women’s underwear, it meant lightweight undergarments which were made out of elastics and nylon.

Moreover, there was a shift from the reliance on corsets to shape the body, to the use of stretchy girdles and bras.

Only in the 1950s did the trend again shift to the pin-up doll aesthetic, categorised by shapely girdles made out of polyester or nylon, with padded bras with accentuated bust areas through pointy bra cups.

This aesthetic allowed for the emphasis to be a cinched waist and pointy bosoms, as the fashion of the time were tight shirts with voluminous skirts which cinched the waist too.

Spandex’s invention in 1959 would mark one of the last evolutions in shapewear design. The material replaced the popular use of materials like whale bone, steel and rubber in the making of undergarments.

It became used universally for everything from bras, to swimwear and bodysuits. The last consideration in understanding the evolution of shapewear is in the 1960s, when control pantyhose and panties replaced the popular wearing of girdles.

It would take another 40 years to revolutionise shapewear and begin the ongoing deconstruction and reconstruction of the current shapewear.

This was with the introduction of Spanx in the early 2000s. Spanx revolutionised shapewear as the undergarment items were not regarded as exclusive from the wearing of underwear, but were considered mutually inclusive and aimed at shaping the body, while providing support and lift.

Does shapewear work?

So, if you are wondering, what is the purpose of contemporary shapewear? The simple answer is that the purpose of shapewear has not changed since the invention of the first interpretation thereof.

However, what has changed in shapewear with its continued interpretations is the level of comfort and material used.

This does not mean that the use of shapewear will produce similar results for everyone. What does this mean? Well, let us explain it better.

With the rise of the Kardashians and the advent of the BBL. A “BBL” refers to a Brazilian Butt Lift, which is the medical cosmetic procedure which aims to give women a tiny waist with an accentuated hip area and posterior.

This body type has become arguably the most popular aesthetic for women’s bodies.

Add the launch of Kim Kardashian West’s creation of Skims in 2018, a shapewear company which describes itself as a “solutions-oriented brand creating the next generation of underwear, loungewear and shapewear.”

Confusion or unrealistic expectations on the results of wearing shapewear were created. This is as customers believe that the shapewear will shape their bodies to look like that of one of the Kardashians.

However, that is not the point of shapewear. The point is to lift and/or support targeted body areas. Therefore, contemporary shapewear is not designed to produce a universal body aesthetic.

However, it is designed to work with each person’s unique body. Hence, shapewear works only when the customer understands the purpose of wearing it.

Is shapewear still in trend?

It is in the same vein that one would need to consider whether or not the use of shapewear is a trend or a passing fad. The truth is, there is no right or wrong answer in this regard.

This is as the use of shapewear is a personalised experience, especially in today’s context with the continued push for inclusion in fashion.

Earlier, when we discussed the history of shapewear, the article stated that the use of the various interpretations was aimed at creating a universal body type or aesthetic.

However, with the paradigm shift in fashion during the late 2010s, with the push of inclusivity, in terms of fashion representing all body types, sizes and races, the uses of a monolithic measuring stick for beauty has been kicked to the curb. Similarly, so has the definition of a trend.

Trends in contemporary understanding are guides and not instructions. Moreover, shapewear is not promoted contemporarily as a trend, but rather as an essential undergarment to wear when aiming to achieve a smooth and finished look.

For instance, when you are looking to wear a bodycon dress, but you are also conscious of either cellulite or an unflattering “fupa”, wearing shapewear eliminates the visibility thereof as it smoothes and firms these trouble areas when wearing said bodycon dress.

Therefore, with the wearing of shapewear, the want or desire is placed on the individual rather than the collective. More so as contemporary shapewear has been created to cater for different events or outfit choices.

This is as the designs now include pantyhose’s cut in different styles, separate bra tops or one-piece bodysuits or dresses, the variations are limitless.

Therefore, the use of shapewear has been positioned as an undergarment essential, rather than a momentary fad or craze.

Pros and cons of wearing shapewear

Hence, when considering purchasing shapewear, there are general pros and cons to consider about wearing the undergarment.

Mostly, the pros outweigh the cons. However, this is dependent on your choice of the type of shapewear chosen and the material thereof.

So, when considering purchasing shapewear, these are the things you can look forward to, and some of the aspects you can look out for:

Pros Cons
The use of shape enhances confidence as the undergarment smoothes the look of extra flab. The use of incorrectly fitting shapewear can cause bulges and harsh lines on the body.
The use of shapewear can drop you one to three dress sizes, as it firms and tucks in extra flab. The wearing of incorrectly fitting shapewear can result in problems with blood vessels and nerves beneath the skin.
The use of the shapewear can help achieve the hourglass figure depending on your body type. The wearing of shapewear for long durations can result in discomfort and numbing of the affected area.
The use of shapewear can also help in enhancing posture and back support depending on the make. When wearing shapewear, depending on the make, bathroom breaks might need some consideration.
The use of shapewear has improved through the availability of different styles and material used in manufacturing the shapewear. The wearing of shapewear has also been linked to some health risks due to the compression aspect of the undergarment.

Which shapewear brand is best

Creating a list of the best shapewear brands currently available, is difficult. This is as different brands are lauded for different styles of shapewear, because different styles of shapewear target specific body parts.

Currently established shapewear designs include minimiser bras, extended briefs, slip shapers, shaping tops, waist cinchers, thigh slimmers and bodysuits.

Therefore, one shapewear brand might be lauded for their minimiser bras, while the other is lauded for its slip shapers. The listed companies are five of the most referred to shapewear companies.


Founded in Atlanta, Georgia by Sara Blakely in 2016. The company prides itself in being:

“a brand for women, by women. We obsess (over) comfort, deliver results and ensure you look as good as you feel. We think forward, and give back. We believe women can do anything. And together, we believe we will make the world a better place… one butt at a time!”

Shop Spanx shapewear on Amazon


As mentioned before, the shapewear, underwear and loungewear brand was founded by Kim Kardashian West. The brand’s ethos is stated as:

“We are setting new standards by providing solutions for every body. From technically constructed shapewear that enhances your curves to underwear that stretches to twice its size, our goal is to consistently innovate on the past and advance our industry for the future.”


Having been formerly established in 1922 as an underwear company by married couple, William and Ida Rosenthal, and business partner, Enid Basset.

In 1997, the company filed for bankruptcy and emerged again in 1999. Currently, the underwear brand is owned by multinational American clothing company, HanesBrand.

Shop Maidenform shapewear on Amazon


Initially called Yummie Tummies when it was founded by reality star, Heather Thomson in 2008.

Following Thomson’s departure from the brand, Eric Rothfeld, re-branded and changed the name of the company to be Yummie. The ethos of the company now reads as:

“We are Yummie. We’re a hug, not a squeeze. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, we embrace your curves, we embody your shape, and we empower you to be… YOU! We take pride in celebrating your silhouette. We’re here to boost your confidence. With Yummie on your side, not only will you look your best, but more importantly, you’ll feel your best.”

Shop Yummie shapewear on Amazon


Established in 2005 by founder and chief-executive officer of the shapewear brand, Kerry O’Brien. Her intention with establishing the company was innovation within the female intimate’s market. A point emphasised by the company’s ethos which reads:

“By thoughtfully sourcing the world’s best fabrics, performing rigorous fit tests, and obsessing about fit and comfort, we create innovative, luxury-technical clothing that allows you to be your best self.”

Shop Commando shapewear on Amazon

Where to buy shapewear and how much does it cost 

All of the brands mentioned above have online stores available. Therefore, instead of sharing just the link to their websites, we are going to give possible customers advice on which shapewear items are popular from each of the shapewear companies mentioned, as a guide as to what to purchase from each of the companies.


Spanx is mostly popular for its leggings. This is no surprise as the pioneering shapewear company came into dominance from introducing the inner secret tights. The inner secret tights are still available on the website.

The currently popular items on the website include the OnCore High-Waisted Mid-Thigh Short which retails for $78, the Suit Your Fancy Plunge Low-Back Mid-Thigh Bodysuit which retails for $148, and the Thinstincts 2.0 High-Waisted Mid-Thigh Short retailing for $72.


Skims’ most innovative shapewear design is the Solution Shorts. These are the tights with a single leg cut out meant to be worn with either asymmetrical dresses and skirts, or dresses and skirts with a high slit which exposes a single leg.

The Solution Shorts retail for $62, and are still one of the most popular items from the shapewear range. Another best-seller for the brand is the Waist Trainer, which retails for $68.


Maidenform is most recommended for comfortable cool comfort material, which aims to reduce the sweating and heating up when wearing their waist trainers especially.

The company has two available options on the website, which includes the High Waist Thigh Slimmer With Cool Comfort and Lycra FitSense and the High Waist Brief With Cool Comfort and Lycra FitSense, which retail for $43.20 and $35.20 respectively.


Yummie’s most popular items are focussed on underwear shapewear. Therefore, the current bestseller is the Ultralight Seamless Shaping Thong, with an extended belt to tuck the midsection in.

The website has confirmed the availability of the thong in new colours which retails for $20. The thong can be paired with the Seamless 2-Way Shaping Tank, which is also a popular purchase and retails for $38.


Commando’s most popular shapewear items purchased are mostly the company’s bralettes and bodysuits. The bralettes which are a go-to for customers include the Butter Comfy Bralette, which retails for $68.

Alternatively, the Butter Bralette, which is differentiated from the comfy bralette through the thinner strap’s retails for $64. Both shapewear pieces can be worn with the Butter Mid-Rise Thong, which is also a bestseller retailing at $26.