How Shapewear Works

Shaping History
This advertisement for Warner Brothers corsets originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar in 1879. Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Shapewear has been molding women's bodies in Western society for more than 500 years [source: University of Virginia]. It all began with the corset, an undergarment designed to restrict and shape a woman's torso. In the 1500s, corsets were made from rigid materials like whalebone, with a stay or busk placed in the center to keep it straight on her torso. The corset usually had shoulder straps and stopped just short of the pelvic bone [source: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco].

During Queen Elizabeth I's era, the design was largely architectural, resulting in molding the woman's torso into a straight-sided, inverted cone. In the early 1800s, corsets went out of style (the Empire waist look was fashionable), but when they returned a short time later, their shape changed significantly.

These new corsets accentuated a woman's hourglass figure, cinching in to give the smallest waist possible (and make the hips and bust look bigger). As the corset got tighter, the fat – and even internal organs – got squeezed harder.

Physicians objected to the use of these corsets and even went so far as to attribute diseases like tuberculosis, liver disease and cancer to corset- wearing. Whether there was any correlation is unlikely, but doctors were right that these corsets stunted proper muscle development and the ability to exercise [source: University of Virginia].

Thankfully, by the 1900s, ideals of beauty changed and the corset went out of fashion in the flapper era. By the time curves were stylish again (in the 1930s and '40s), women were using undergarments like the girdle to smooth out the belly and give the appearance of a flat stomach. Girdles were much less restrictive than corsets. Women's desires for having flat stomachs and smooth lines persists today and led to the development of new types of shapewear, one of the most popular being the Spanx brand.