Shapewear: possibly fashion’s unsexiest relation, yet potentially its fiercest ally, isn’t something that one approaches with relish, in spite of the benefits it offers. As shopping goes, winching yourself into a pair of Spanx in a changing room is not exactly a red letter day out. But this re-working of our external silhouette through internal constructs is of course nothing new.
The V&A’s latest exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, which opened on Saturday, features 18th century bustles and hooped petticoats, a collapsing crinoline designed to allow maximum movement, rigid 19th century corsetry and an 'austerity’ corset from 1917 fashioned from paper twine due to war-time textile shortages.
Silk trousers require No VPL pants. Silk trousers, £125, Jigsaw
The exhibition also features our more modern preferences: 1930’s silk knickers, a 1960s Mary Quant body, a Marks and Spencer’s sports bra and Calvin Klein thong briefs. It’s a revelatory insight into the fact that ultimately when it comes to human vanity, nothing really changes. Corsetry is brought full circle with the inclusion of a 'waist training corset’ as worn by Kim Kardashian (of course she does).
The Victorians may have sought out wasp waists and plumped up behinds, but fashion’s current predilections bring their own scaffolding issues: this summer’s drop shoulder tops (sold to us on the basis that women of every age have a nice shoulder) require reliable strapless bras, a close fitting ribbed skirt might warrant some underlying smoothing, silk trousers need a knicker that can vanish VPL and you may feel more comfortable in a flimsy slip dress with a little tummy control. Not to mention the conundrums that come with sheer T shirts, plunging necklines, back lines and deep-cut arm holes.
Don’t fear the deep V – you just need to find a suitably plunging bra. Pleated dress, £140 (coming soon), metallic sandals, £110,Uterqüe
Neatly, Selfridges have just unveiled their 37,000 square foot Body Studio, which promises every possible type of undergarment one could think of – from the practical to the kinky. I visited their rather nifty concealed personal shopping changing room, which offers 007 level sliding doors and discretion, where the wonderful Clare Basche, who is a sort of underwear soothsayer proffered expert advice and options to solve all undergarment issues.
First tip: wear a white T shirt or vest top when bra shopping and always put this on over the bra you’re trying to see the shape it creates, and whether or not you can see it through your top.
A slip dress requires careful underwear planning. Janine dress, £95, Ghost
The key thing she advises (which seems basic, yet if your knicker draw if anything like mine…) is fit; underwear should be invisible under your outfit. If those shaping cycling shorts keep rolling up, it’s because you’re in too small a size. Never go for a smaller size thinking it will have more of a 'shaping’ effect – M&S, Spanx, Chantelle and Wolford offer different levels of control.
If you want to be really kept in, look for maximum control items. Although, I would offer that as a curvy size 14, after getting my head stuck in a rigidly stringent body suit and failing to get on the highest control level of high waisted Spanx, that those who can winch themselves into these items probably don’t really need them. Selfridges best selling size of Spanx is a small. Perception is everything. Basche advises patience and time. You should wiggle into those long line shorts as if they were tights, don’t try and pull them up. Never layer shapewear (the bride who wears constrictive knickers under her corseted dress, will have passed out before the toasts), and always know that really, these pieces are for smoothing and sculpting what you already have. They can’t do more than that.
Below are the Telegraph team’s best picks, we have wriggled and contorted our way into every bit of spandex out there to bring you the most comprehensive guide possible. Do make sure you can breath.
Your bra essentials (for all tricky outfit eventualities)
A great sculpting strapless bra, in either skin colour or black
It should feel rigid when it’s on. Always wear a skin colour bra under white tops (much better than white). This Simone Perele one is sturdy, and dips at the front so is great for lower cut tops too. The Fantasie Moulded Strapless bra in Black, £44.95, Rigby & Peller, also offers a great shape and doesn’t budge.
An invisible bra (for slightly sheer T shirts)
The Chantelle memory foam one is incredible. Comfortable and vanishes beneath even the most see-through of tops.
A plunge bra with or without padding for more risqué necklines.
This H&M black bra is a great low price option. The La Perla (Timeless underwire triangle bra, £154 (laperla.com)) one is pricey, but Basche describes it as her cure-all go-to. It’s a mesh fabric so takes up minimal space (perfect for closely fitting dresses) and sits low on the breast bone.
A stick on bra (for very revealing dresses which are low at the front and back)
These are not for all – they only go up to a D cup, and are for concealment rather than support. If you feel more comfortable in a proper bra, but have fallen in love with a dramatically cut dress, why not make a feature of your underwear. Choose a pretty lace bra in a complementary colour to the dress.
Perfect for underneath slip dresses and knitted skirts
This was ideal for what I was looking for. Provides reasonable control and very smooth line yet completely comfortable all day and night. Can be worn with a bra, and easily has removable straps. Quite short, but that means it doesn’t show under slit pencil skirts. Excellent value for money.
The USP of these, is that the different neckline options. Some are strappy, some one shouldered , others strapless. There are various pastel shades available alongside the usual nudes. Containing 20 per cent Elastane, they’re effective but not constricting. Lisa Armstrong