Lingerie booms with return of the girdle

A-listers wanting to squeeze into this season's unforgiving fashions are leading a £135m stampede for shape-control underwear
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The Independent Online

Gwyneth Paltrow likes it doubled up. Jessica Alba swears by it. And Mel B is using it in her quest to compete with her size zero singing rivals on the Spice Girls tour.

The "it" is shapewear – the 21st century's take on the old-fashioned girdle that has burst on to the lingerie scene with annual sales of £135m in the UK alone. Millions of British women know that it's their only salvation when squeezing into this season's waist-centric fashions. New figures show demand for shapewear, which includes Trinny & Susannah's best-selling magic knickers and control pants from Marks & Spencer, has surged by a fifth in the past four years. Lingerie experts estimate that up to 80 per cent of British women seek help from nylon-spandex undergarments to smooth out unwanted lumps.

Spanx, the US brand started by Sara Blakely with the help of Oprah Winfrey in 2000, is a best-seller for lingerie specialists such as Figleaves.com because it is so popular with Hollywood A-listers. Gwyneth Paltrow wore two of Spanx's girdles to fit back into her Seven jeans after giving birth to her daughter Apple. Spanx, which has annual sales of $150m (£75m), saw its UK sales double between 2005 and 2006. Other celebrity advocates of body-shaping underwear, either to appear impossibly svelte or to give to them curves in the right places, include Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson and Cate Blanchett.

In the UK, Kylie Minogue thanked her dress for its support at the recent Q Awards, prompting Grazia magazine to crow: "We suspected she, like us and every curvy-conscious A-lister on the planet, is using fashion's latest – and gloriously invisible – secret weapon: control pants."

Denise Fraser, Figleaves.com's lingerie buyer, said: "In the past, shapewear was something your mother wore but now there is no longer that barrier." The return of the waist via nipped-in suits and high-waisted trousers and pencil skirts means many women need to define where their hips end and their chest begins. Figleaves.com said sales of Rago Waist Cinchers have soared by more than 200 per cent from last year.

Like most body-conscious trends, the female love affair with shapewear was rekindled in the US, where the sector is worth $735m a year and growing at 6 per cent, according to the NPD research group. The lingerie helps women to drop up to two dress sizes without going near a gym or on a diet.

Fearing a loss to their earnings, even plastic surgeons are muscling in on the market. Dr Robert Rey, the Beverly Hills-based surgeon to the stars, launched a new range last month with the Australian lingerie designer Bruno Schiavi.

And in the UK, even the most unlikely companies now sell shapewear. Avon, the cosmetics giant, has sold 31,000 pairs of control briefs in seven weeks. That pales, however, compared with sales at M&S, which sold five pairs of control pants each minute in the three months from April to June. That's 7,670 pairs a day. John Lewis, which runs special shapewear consultations via its lingerie advice service, has seen sales of its brands soar by 75 per cent over the past two years. It is launching an own-brand version next month in time for the Christmas party season.

Susannah Constantine explained why she and Trinny Woodall launched their knicker line: "The right underwear really is the secret behind a great outfit. These will suck you in and hoick you up quicker than any diet or exercise regime."

But it is not all good news for women. Charles Nduka, a consultant plastic surgeon at the McIdnoe Surgical Centre in East Grinstead, warned that if taken to extremes, girdles could cause deep vein thrombosis by restricting the supply of blood around the legs and compress certain nerves, leading to a loss of feeling. "Varicose veins could also be exacerbated," he added.

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