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Should I Buy Shapewear?

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Over the years I’ve seen many women in mermaid dresses or skintight knit dresses (especially on the red carpet) with no visible underwear lines or fat bulges. How is that done? I’m a fit woman, but as I have gotten older, even I have a belly and back fat. What’s the secret? — Liza, Michigan


Welcome to the booming world of shapewear, a.k.a. the modern no-more-pain version of what used to be known as a girdle: stretchy undergarments that promise to suck in and hold up the parts you want sucked in and held up, polish your overall lines and otherwise create the illusion of a sculpted form.

In the multiverse of fashion, shapewear has exploded at almost exactly the same time as the body inclusivity movement, which seems counterintuitive. (If we celebrate our bodies as they are, why are we also trying to smooth and streamline them?) Except, I guess, the idea is everyone should have access to smoothing and streamlining undergarments, so everyone can feel good about wearing a skintight dress.

And, as you point out, skintight dresses and mermaid dresses are the general go-to for red carpets everywhere. (I can’t tell you how many stylists I have spoken to who despair over the fact that they can’t get their celebrity clients out of a mermaid dress.) Since we are about to embark on a slightly delayed red carpet season — the Oscar nominations just came out — we’re about to be confronted with a lot more examples.

One caveat: Cora Harrington, the author of “In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie,” pointed out that it’s important to consider where the images you see of these seemingly streamlined deities originate.

“If it’s on social media, such as Instagram, that smooth silhouette is quite possibly the result of photo editing tools,” she wrote when I emailed her for advice. “Editing is so common among influencers and celebrities, that it’s become increasingly difficult to tell what’s real versus what’s ‘enhanced.’”

If you’re seeing it in person, though, shapewear is indeed probably the answer.

Spanx was the pioneer of the sector, making its founder, Sara Blakely, Forbes’s youngest self-made billionaire in 2012. Adele, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tyra Banks spoke publicly about doubling — and even tripling — their Spanx.

Today, Ms. Harrington said, there are a number of other options, most famous among them Kim Kardashian’s Skims, but also Honeylove. Commando is also a red carpet favorite.

(For an indication of just how booming this category is, consider that Skims, founded in 2018, was recently valued at $3.2 billion.)

Whatever brand you choose, Ms. Harrington said, look for seamless edges that “disappear.” Then, choose garments for specific areas.

“For back and tummy shaping, you can look for tank top-style garments,” she wrote. “For waist, hip, thigh and bottom shaping, high-waisted shorts. And for the entire body, shaping slips are useful.”

If, however, you’re going for a full-leg bodysuit, Ms. Harrington said, just remember: “If one has to use the restroom while wearing one of those in combination with a bodycon dress, that can be a problem.”

Your Style Questions, Answered

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

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