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Invasion of the Body Shapers

I still have the Red Dress.

It's a Liz Claiborne double-breasted, wool coat dress. Red. No monster shoulder pads. No sequins. No bows. Just a simple, elegant style.

I chose red because I would be wearing it to accept an award at a press association banquet, and I wanted to be noticed.

It worked.

I matched the Red Dress with black patent-leather pumps, sheer hosiery, a pearl necklace and all the confidence I could muster. When a colleague said with inebriated charm that the sight of me walking across the reception hall was forever seared into his memory, I knew I was a hit.

I wore the Red Dress a few more times before moving to Florida, where mild winters buried it in the back of the closet.

Until I started writing this story.

I wanted to see if I still could get into a size 6. Out of the garment bag, off the hanger and onto my form, it still fit, but not as well.

I faced a mirror. No problems with a front pose, but a rear view look was less than enchanting. The dress was too snug across my bottom. No mere slip or control-top pantyhose would do.

My backside had settled and broadened; not a lot, but enough to reflect panty lines and little bulges.

Could the Red Dress be saved?

Armed with the garment, I hit the lingerie section at a large department store. I took a handful of support undergarments and the dress into the dressing room, with all its vulgar lights.

I stripped to my underwear and bra and gave a less than admiring glance to my bottom, which has the consistency of room-temperature cookie dough. Make mine raisin. And what once was a sexy swell for a tummy is now just round.

For reasons of clarity, I'll tell you that the night of the press banquet seven years ago I weighed about 120 pounds. In more recent years, my weight has fluctuated between 128 and 135. I weighed myself before leaving for the store and tipped the scales at 133.

The first thing I tried on was something akin to bike shorts. It's a Flexees Instant Slimmer, suggested retail $29. Made with Lycra, the garment's front panel flattens your stomach; side panels even hips.

On went the dress. A rear view looked great. I was a fashion diva again. It felt good to be alive. Life was grand.

But I had to be honest. I was suffocating. And underneath the dress, I was Mom. All too clearly I remembered being about 6 years old and watching my mother wriggle into a chalky white Playtex girdle that left deep marks on her legs and waist by the end of the day.

One day, she warned, you'll have to do this, too.

I have seen the future, and it ain't pretty. If I ever want to wear this dress again, I will have have to press the flesh.

After peeling off the garment, my next shot was with another Flexees Instant Slimmer, suggested retail $22.50. This one looked like a high-waisted panty brief, and it didn't rein in the thighs and hips.

I tried on some other stuff, including a waist nipper, before making my way back to the racks. As I was hanging up the shapers, I heard a young woman lament: "I can't see myself wearing this. Not for four hours."

Ah, I thought. Another person dealing with gravity. Looking closer, I saw that the voice came from a petite blond woman with the body fat of waif super-model Kate Moss. She was holding either a strapless or halter bra. I didn't want to know more.

Ah, but I already knew: This business of terminating tummies and slimming thighs is no Generation X problem. This is strictly a baby boomer bummer for people in their early 30s to late 40s who have signed off on their figures from the taut 20s.

Never before have shapers been needed as much: Children of the '50s and '60s are finding their bodies have settled _ stomach pouch, saddlebags _ and without that firmness, they are too self-conscious to wear figure-hugging styles. And plastic surgery is so uncool.

Karen Bromley, spokeswoman for the Intimate Apparel Council, a trade organization in New York City, said sales of body shapers ("what used to be your mother's girdles") was an industry of some $325-million during 1994 and the first quarter of 1995. All-in-one shapers, thigh slimmers and butt boosters led the way. That doesn't include the bra trade, an approximately $3-billion industry during the same period, Bromley said.

"You, along with the rest of the baby boomers, have really come to a point where gravity plays a role," she said, adding that fashion's fetish with body-hugging designs strengthens the urge to conform.

About all I can deal with right now are padded bras. The Victoria's Secret Miracle Bra has done wonders for me. I own two of them. But I'm just not ready to swallow my pride below the waist. The Red Dress is back in my closet, where it will stay. Even on a cool December day, I'll probably tell my husband I never wear it because it's just too hot.

But deep down, it's because I'll never be able to top the way I looked that long-ago night in 1988. And I thought the Red Dress would last forever.