The Girdle’s Back, and Gwyneth’s Got It!

Girdles, back when women wore them at breakfast, to the market, to bridge, were suits of armor. Imposing, certainly, and

Girdles, back when women wore them at breakfast, to the market, to bridge, were suits of armor. Imposing, certainly, and demanding. Pour yourself in and cinch it. A promise not to jiggle or shake. A promise to aspire to feminine shapes, to adjust the ratio of your belly to your hip, to believe in one perfect female ideal.

And then-but for ironic incarnations by designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Jean-Paul Gaultier-they were gone. Renounced as tools of oppression, the idea absorbed into manic rituals of ripping your abs and adopting protein-only diets. Fashion veered toward the defensive, the practical: Zippers, sneakers, hoods and pockets were attached to designs for hipless girls and skinny boys.

But there it was, the end of the millennium, and everyone was watching Any Given Sunday . Big, sweating American men in their armor: mammoth shoulders, bulging torsos, tiny waists. V-shaped men. Jamie Foxx! And then, in the female equivalent of shoulder pads and chest protectors, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett were running around Italy in angora beanies with perfect postures, their waists cinched in, their hips flat under circle skirts, their shoulders back, their busts insulated and protected, then covered by cashmere sweaters and Revillon furs in The Talented Mr. Ripley .

All those gorgeous clothes- that fabulous white opera gown !-and what did Ms. Blanchett like wearing best? The girdle. It just made you want to go out and buy one to wear with your new side-parted hairdo and tube of straight-up, matte red lipstick. To dress up, packed tight as a firecracker.

Well, maybe you should.

The new spring collections in stores are calling out for a little old-fashioned tummy support: a modern girdle. Prada knee-length skirts and tucked-in blouses, classic Chanel suits with short-waisted jackets, Calvin Klein pencil skirts. And the Tuleh fall 2000 line, to be shown next month, has form-fitting pieces with boning. “It’s completely about real, classic New York style. Park Avenue style,” said Tuleh designer Josh Patner. “Those are really built clothes, and foundation garments are a really big part of those looks.”

Fortunately, the new girdle has a new design, too. Explained Gwen Widell, a vice president at Warnaco, “It’s for the size 4 who doesn’t think she’s slim enough or shaped right.”

Forget the elastic trap your grandmother wore. The girdle has reached the level of high-tech lingerie. There are thong girdles. Crotchless girdles. There are high-end options from Wolford, Fogal and La Perla ($45 to $200). A little less pricy and less frilly are the Calvin Klein and Donna Karan models ($20 to $60). Some are shaped like little biker shorts, others are like extremely tight miniskirts, others like hip huggers. Then there’s the I Can’t Believe It’s a Girdle ($16 to $35). They are smooth and plain, or lacy and extravagant. And they’re not for hiding fat. They take carbohydrate-deprived, Tae Boed figures and reconfigure them -cinching waists, smoothing thighs, lifting bottoms.

“In the last two to three years, there’s been a real resurgence,” said Francine Klein of Bloomingdale’s intimate apparel division. “The growth is really coming from the newer customer who is younger.… These are women you might not think of wearing a control garment, just because they’re thin. But they do! That’s who’s buying the product.”

Like overexercised actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who’s wearing a Tuleh corset to the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 23. “It gives you a certain feeling of stature when you wear those things,” said Mr. Patner, about the revival of the girdle.

Valerie Steele, who is currently curating an exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology, on Seventh Avenue at 27th Street called The Corset: Fashioning the Body , first bought a girdle out of simple love of Prada. “I had my eye on this beautiful Prada blouse and skirt,” she said. “It’s really, really pretty, and I was just thinking, I wonder what the best foundations to wear with that will be? A bra, of course, but then wouldn’t it be nice to have sort of a little waist cincher?”

Though the contraptions have not really gotten more comfortable, Tiffany Dubin, the petite vice president of marketing at the Auction Channel, said women wearing girdles again means “it’s O.K. to have a more feminine body, it’s O.K. to gain a few pounds. Those neurotic 80’s women are totally looked down on.”

“It feels good to be held in,” said Ms. Dubin, who eats a lot less when she’s out in the corset she bought on Orchard Street. “A girdle’s just classic. It’s chicer to wear one. It always looks right.”

The girdle craze is rooted in a fashion backlash. “It’s a total sea change,” said Mr. Patner. “It’s a return to a classic wardrobe, it’s the death of uniforms of convenience. This has not been seen for 25 years, especially in young women. Hats, gloves, a real sense of precision, of being appropriate.”

“Minimalism sort of hit a wall,” said Hal Rubenstein, fashion features director of In Style magazine. “Everybody thought that you’d enter the millennium wearing a stretch jean-o-tard. Here we finally get to the millennium and it’s about high heels and velvet. It’s the exact opposite of what everyone expected.”

Explained Ann Roth, who designed the girdle-dependent costumes for Ripley : “If one is sitting on a subway, you would have to say it’s a primmer look because the knees are pretty much together,” she said. “The back is straighter, the tummy’s flatter. It’s less take me as I am .”

“I think that there seems to be an air of sophistication that has surfaced. There seems to be a return to luxury,” said designer Yeohlee Teng from her studio where she had just finished a Lycra corset for the F.I.T. exhibition. “Women will look more sensual and more like women … I think form is going to be very important, whereas before it was function. There’s a move away from the high-tech and practical issues, like, ‘Yeah! How many pockets do I have? And I can convert my skirt into a pant? ‘ Instead, I’m feeling that people are wanting to look glamorous and sophisticated and important.”

And the new girdle is all those things. “There’s nothing wrong with a little assistance here and there,” said Mr. Rubenstein. “What you will see is somebody who is fit already, putting on one of these things to maybe enhance a little more.”

That’s good news for Lisa Gabor, a fashion writer. “Unfortunately,” she said, “I haven’t been in the mood to work out for a year now.”

But it’s not for everyone. Some women might be resistant, not just because they think their sex has come too far to go back to girdles. “It has a lot to do with the name of the thing,” said Ms. Gabor. “It’s all about, can you ever see yourself wearing a girdle? Oh, my God! I would probably never get out of bed. But … but … a little control panel? Now we’re talking!”

A middle-aged man who maintains a girdle fetish Web site called Zona: The Girdle Zone and identifies himself only as Virginian insists that girdles can be about freedom. “Now that women aren’t faced with societal pressure that says they have to wear a girdle all the time,” he explained, “a woman can make a decision to wear one with a particular special outfit without feeling that she has somehow condemned herself to a lifetime of daily constriction.” Postings to his Web site are filled with all sorts of girdle-love tales. Like the 28-year-old newlywed who gushed, “It was strange to see myself fitting so well into a dress!”

“Maybe it’s going to be fun to be a girl again,” said Ms. Teng. “I think that women are being enhanced rather than obliterated.” The Girdle’s Back, and Gwyneth’s Got It!