Of course, the impulse to tailor one’s natural proportions is nothing new. There were four centuries of corsetry, and girdles in the early 20th century—“even for the young and slim,” pointed out Valerie Steele, director of the museum at FIT—before we started letting it all hang out in the 1960’s. After women went to work in earnest, there were those crumpled control-top pantyhose in an egg, and then the fitness craze to keep us firm. We “internalized [girdles] through diet and exercise and surgical procedures like liposuction,” Ms. Steele mused. But maybe, just maybe, it all got too exhausting.
“Everyone’s so weight-obsessed in New York, it’s annoying,” said the socialite. “If people say, ‘Oh, you look so thin,’ I’m just like, ‘I’m wearing Spanx,’ and let it be.”
‘His Face Registered Horror’
Not everyone is in agreement about Spanx’s appeal.
“I was going to the 7th on Sale party, and I was supposed to wear a very slim-line jersey dress, vintage Bill Blass,” said Plum Sykes, the novelist, socialite and Vogue contributor. “The problem was it showed everything, this dress. So I thought, ‘Very well, I’ll go and get this thing called Spanx.’ I’m a little bony, so I wanted to reduce the boniness, but it looked awful!” Ms. Sykes faulted Spanx’s (very minor) seam down the front. “Those things can work; but I think you have to be more on the pudgy side, and then it sort of sucks you all in,” she concluded.
“I don’t feel very sexy when I have them on,” said the actress Chloë Sevigny. “They’re supposed to make you look good in pictures, but I’d rather feel good. I just suck it in.”
“I have a love/hate relationship with them,” said the socialite Fabiola Beracasa, Veronica Hearst’s daughter and the creative director of an estate jewelry company. “You’re always a little self-conscious about people touching you. People don’t just shake your hand and walk away. So you’re dancing around somebody because their arm is darting in your direction.”
Others embrace the protection of Spanx. “It makes me feel less naked,” said a Condé Nast fashion editor who asked not to be named. “Sometimes I get nervous that someone’s going to pinch my butt or brush by me, and it’s just going to be naked buttness!”
She suggested that those who find the neo-girdles uncomfortable are probably just wearing too small a size. “You don’t want to smash your butt; you just want to organize things.”
For all the wonders Spanx may work with that diaphanous Rodarte evening dress, however, there hovers a specter. Judy Woloshen, 30, a publicist for THINKFilm, said when she wears Spanx, she’s “praying that I don’t meet a gorgeous man who wants to rip off my dress.”
Who can forget the scenes in St. Elmo’s Fire and Bridget Jones’s Diary, of plump heroines being seduced and then summarily mocked by men who encounter their grandmotherly panties? Certainly not Nicolette, 26, a fashion designer who lives in the East Village and wore the Power Panties to a wedding under a cocktail dress. “This idiot I went to high school with was groping me on the dance floor,” she said. “He felt my abnormally hard ass, and his face registered horror, and he said, ‘What is this, some kind of girdle?’ I was humiliated. I seriously had to retire them.”
And yet some women have turned to wearing Spanx as a barrier against unwanted temptation. “I was out at Cain with a bunch of girlfriends,” said Rini, 27, who works at a hedge fund. “We ran into some Wall Street boys that I knew, and I ended up leaving with a particularly cute one. We started making out in the taxi, and then I realized I had Spanx on. I was so embarrassed and worried he would find out I was wearing a girdle that I wouldn’t let him touch me! I woke up grateful for my Spanx.”
Men are not so grateful (see sidebar). “I really detest Spanx,” said Jimmy Jellinek, former editor in chief of Maxim. “I feel like it’s a total bait and switch. You get it off and all of a sudden it’s like a fucking flab-alanche! It just comes out like a snow bank falling from a crevasse.”
When it comes down to it, maybe the only thing Spanx prove is that we dress for the beginning of the night, not the end. And their popularity shows no sign of waning. “I think there’s going to be an even larger audience, because dresses are getting tighter,” said Ms. Yalof Schwartz. “The baby-doll look is going to be done, if it’s not done already.”
Mr. Lawson suggests a compromise. “To me the next step is sexy Spanx,” he said. “Why can’t they have lace on them?”
Ah, who needs to be patronized by patriarchal lace? Kate S, the event planner, is satisfied with just plain Spanx. “A girl stands up a little straighter,” she said. “They give you Mannequin Ass. It doesn’t billow like it’s full of water. It just doesn’t move.”
She sighed. “They really are amazing.”