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Modern-Day Shapewear Sucks, but Vintage Shapewear Rules

Skip the Spanx and go straight for a corset.

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A woman wearing vintage black shapewear and lingerie, sitting at an office desk Photo: Morat.Rocks/What Katie Did (Model: Masuimi Max)

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A few weeks ago, I asked a bunch of my coworkers if they would participate in a pretty rude experiment: squeeze their bodies into different styles of shapewear and tell me about how it made them feel.

To the surprise of no one, most of my colleagues did not like having their flesh and insides squished into stretchy fabric for more than an hour. Alanna said her shorts-shapewear “successfully smoothed my tummy but only because they displaced the fat elsewhere, brimming over the top and peeping out the bottom.” Meredith said that she found herself “halfway through the day, slumped in the office bathroom, unwilling to pull my shapewear back up.”

Of her control top tights, Cheryl offered: “I am certain they somehow impede your intestines from doing what needs to happen, though I have no medical evidence for this. I was in such agony by the end of the day that I didn't have the guts (sorry) to try the other items, like this high-waisted contour thong.” And of her shapewear shorts, Laura said: “The fabric rolled up at the thighs and down at the ribcage when I did shapewear-forbidden activities like sit, breathe, or generally move.”

Lastly, Stephanie told me she “avoided going to the bathroom because getting them off and on was such a challenge.” I personally was concerned we were all going to get UTIs.

The initial plan was to run everyone’s reviews about what they liked and didn’t like, but the one I personally found the most helpful came from Annemarie, who’s really into shopping for and wearing vintage clothing. Her takeaway: Modern-day shapewear sucks, but vintage shapewear actually rules.

Here, I’ll let her convince you on the merits of longline bras, girdles, and corsets, and why they’re better than modern-day shapewear:

Last week, the Racked shopping team struggled and pulled ourselves into a variety of shapewear. Mini shorts, contouring leggings, and long tank tops in shades of beige and nude and made out of rubber band-like materials. None of the pieces looked beautiful, and none of them made us feel beautiful.

In fact, battling and fighting the rolled-up top of the contouring leggings, I started crying from being so uncomfortable and feeling so ugly squished into this skintight material. This is the story of modern shapewear.

I'm not a stranger to shapewear. I wear a longline bra most days, a girdle when I wear a dress, and a corset on the days between. These luxurious items were costly and are made of lace and ribbons, and I take care of them. I take caution in the stores I buy them from, often preferring overseas indie brands with good customer track records. And I store all these items in a drawer by themselves.

When I'm shopping for these items, it's impossible to go to your local Macy's or department store to find the right stuff. Fit is super important here, and you need to go to someone who has long-lasting experience in shapewear. What Katie Did is a great starting spot as it has a wide variety of options and price points that won't scare away newcomers (corsets are pricey!), and no one is better than Rago for longline bras and girdles, including pieces with stay-up clips.

Gabourey Sidibe for Nylon, wearing an Orchard Corset.
Photo: Nylon

If you've tried out these pieces, though, Orchard Corset is the next best step. The brand has amazing customer service that will walk you through what size and style to try and how to train your body into the corset; I'm new to its mesh steel-boned waspie, and I love it so far. As far as just experimenting, Esty Lingerie is a hidden gem. It has every piece of vintage-inspired lingerie you could ever want and offers a range of sizes and styles.

Though no one but me can see them and no one else knows I'm wearing them, they make me feel gorgeous. My posture is straighter, my clothes fall on my body better, and I get to keep the secret of beautiful lingerie all day.

Most importantly, these items were designed to take in the shape of the woman wearing it and accentuate her best feature. A longline bra will pick up a perky chest, a girdle will draw eyes to curvaceous hips, a corset will highlight a slim waist. They make you look good and feel good, and they come with the weight of history of those items. None of this is the same as the beige tuns of stretch material that make up modern shapewear.

A waspie may feel like a more serious piece of clothing than stretch bike shorts, but it gives you a silly, frivolous feeling of grace and refinement, no matter what you're wearing on top of it.Annemarie Dooling, vintage shapewear enthusiast

I should add, as a footer, that all modern-day shapewear isn’t total garbage. Cheryl actually really likes the Vanishing Tummy Modern Briefs from Soma (“they provide just enough control while still allowing me to breathe and have intestinal function”). And Meredith really enjoyed her Le Mystère high-waisted briefs:

“I felt amazinggggg. I grabbed them a size up, so the fit was a lot more forgiving but still slimming, and they were black and lacy, like very confusingly cut lingerie. I did a dance in my apartment alone. When my boyfriend came home I was like, ‘Hey, buddy, check me out’ and he was like, ‘You're wearing jeans?’ and I was like, ‘Devil may care!’ Official rec: Buy your shapewear too big! Dance like no one is watching! Jeans are comfortable!”

So there you have it: Size up to make room for your intestines, or buy a real corset.