Commentary: Remember When Bras Were For Burning?

For Peggy Anderson, 36, dieting doesn't cut it anymore. And forget regular workouts. "There's no time," says the Chicago-based market-research consultant and mother of two. So Anderson heads to a local lingerie store for extra help--something, say, with a little Lycra. She recently bought a panty girdle and a one-piece "body smoother" to disguise the 15 pounds she would like someday to take off. "If you want to look good in today's clothing," she says, "shapewear is essential."

New name, old idea. Girdles, now spun out of new lightweight, colorful materials such as stretch satin laced with superstrong Lycra, have

morphed into the '90s. Retailers from department stores to discounters to lingerie boutiques say shapewear is selling like crazy. In an otherwise lackluster year for apparel, sales of intimate items rose 7.8%, to $6.5 billion through October, 1994, compared with the year-earlier period, according to NPD Group Inc., a market research firm.

Since 1991, U.S. sales of shapewear alone have risen 12%, to $350 million, while bra sales have zoomed 17%, to $2.4 billion, boosted by Sara Lee Corp.'s cleavage-enhancing Wonderbra, which made its U.S. debut last August. "All this Lycra is a sign that gravity is taking its toll on the baby-boom generation," figures retail consultant Alan Millstein. "These are the same women who were burning their bras in

the '60s."

TEENYBOPPER BULGE. Demographics and an aging population may explain part of the bulge in foundation-garment sales, but not all of it. Girdles and corsets--once hated for their flesh-constricting features--are turning from avant-garde fashion into mainstream pieces. Designer Iarl Lagerfeld presented corsets under suits instead of blouses in his 1994 fall couture showing. And the December issue of Vogue featured supermodel Cindy Crawford in a one-piece girdle by Isaac Mizrahi. Retail price: $645.

Many of the shapewear buyers in Schwartz's Intimate Apparel store, a Wilmette (Ill.) lingerie landmark for 70 years, are teenagers, says store manager Ginny Dack. They're looking for control-top panties and girdles to wear under prom and graduation outfits. "Young people haven't worn this type of undergarment for years," Dack says. "It's like a new toy for them."

Not that long ago, girdles were more than passe. The feminist movement deemed them Victorian instruments of torture, while fashion designers emphasized a more unstructured, natural look. The advent of control-top pantyhose during the 1970s added the re-inforcement for the stomach that many women wanted--but without the girdle's bulk.

LONG-TERM TREND. Times have changed. With more companies relaxing dress codes, fewer women are wearing pantyhose, but they still want the support, says Susan Masko, senior buyer for intimate apparel at Target Stores. And many boomer women aren't content to accept a few bulges just because they're no longer in their twenties.

Retailers say they're pumping up their intimate apparel departments to take advantage of what they see as a long-term trend. For its spring collection, Target is increasing the space it allocates to intimate apparel and boosting the number of items offered. Sears, Roebuck & Co. is doing the same--increasing floor space by "double-digit" percentages in its remodeled stores, says Robert L. Mettler, president of apparel and home furnishings. "It's bust and boom," he says.

This spring, Playtex Apparel Inc., a division of Sara Lee, is rolling out more shapewear offerings: a line of cotton-and-spandex panties that offers control for women who prefer natural fibers. At Target, spring offerings will include body shapers (one-piece garments that go from bust to hip) and thigh trimmers (bike shorts with side control panels). "These aren't grandma's girdles. They're really pretty," says Target's Masko.

That's good news for women, who are likely to see more shape-hugging knit dresses and pants popping up in the stores this spring. And for retailers and manufacturers, who are finding their bottom lines boosted by shapewear.

Battling Baby Boomer Sag

CORSETS Featured in designer Karl Lagerfeld's fall '94 fashion show, corsets are tr`es chic.

GIRDLES Prettier and lighter than those of the 1950s and '60s, sales have risen 12% in the past three years.

WAIST CINCHERS Hitting the stores in force this spring, they're large elastic belts designed to reduce the waistline.

CONTROL PANTIES Look like pretty underwear, but do a girdle's work with Lycra panels. Playtex says its Playtex Secrets brand of control panties has become its No. 3 selling brand since it was introduced in 1993.

PUSH-UP BRAS Market researchers NPD Group says the new-style bras, which boost bustlines or keep them from sagging, now account for more than 20% of department-store bra sales.

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