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SKIMS Campaign, 2023

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5 June 2024

The Cult of Skims: Shapewear in the 21st Century


The Kardashian machine is a very powerful one. As we enter the new millennium, their aesthetics have undergone a complete overhaul. The ‘audacious’ nouveau riche fad was quickly switched out for a ‘high-brow’, ‘real’ celebrity look. After all, “money talks but wealth whispers”. Kim Kardashian was no longer the socialite on the outs, but a ‘serious’ fashion and corporate mogul. From her many ventures: KKW Beauty, KKW Fragrance, Kimoji - only one has been a suitable contender to succeed the throne: Skims. 


‘A solution for every body’, it is the modern shapewear.


A riveting warning to competitors, shapewear is back and different. Shapewear has long been a fixed icon in fashion, maintaining relevance across changing discourses. This icon remained steadfast through the body positivity movement and the critique of the Western body ideal; with its accentuated hips and bust but a slender figure and non-existent waist. Now the narrative has reversed, shapewear is no longer a restrictive corset but a liberating and fun garment. 


The hourglass figure - the rounded hips, small waist and frame was ‘invented’ in the 14th century. The structured corset of the 16th century was a solution for the everyday woman, who’s sexuality must be negotiated with their ‘womanly duties’, that is, purity and domesticity. Whilst the corset kept women’s posture and demonstrated restraint, it also created an opportunity for women to effortlessly go against the moral code at the time which desired them to keep their sexuality ‘in check’. Now, they are able to dress seductively in public which was also disguised as liberation.


The corset became a fetishised image that subverts female sexuality, pedalling between the imagery of fantasy, eroticism and restraint. 


Later came the 'New Woman'. The Suffragette movements in the early 1900s helped to construct this new archetype. This 'New Woman' was different, she was outspoken, less afraid to go against the status quo and more willing to lead change. The looser styles worn by the 'New Woman' symbolised an eagerness towards freedom and comfortability, even at the expense of desirability. The 1960’s hippie movement reconstructed femininity. It was the free woman, and unlike her counterparts who existed generations before, she didn’t need a crafted corset to express her sexuality. She didn’t need to defy her natural shape through the dreaded act of tightening the corset lace. These alternative, and ‘New-Age’ movements helped to solidify a different ideal associated with the ‘New Woman’ or the ‘Modern Woman’. The physical corset was switched out for the invisible corset - a new type of restraint through exercise and diet. Dieting was framed as a moral good and a symbol of ultimate control, and the body could be moulded through targeted exercises. A new market icon appeared: Athleisure wear.


The waist trainer was the perfect swap out for the corset. The magic garb provides willing participants with the ultimate shapewear tool. You wear it running errands, working out, doing household chores. Athleisure wear clings to the body tightly, accentuating all the “right" features and suppressing the not-so-desirable ones. A shapewear solution for the modern woman who wants agency and flexibility. The slender but hourglass body became the standard opposing the exaggerated proportions of a corset. The body can be taught restraint and tightness and the achieved outcome is the Western beauty ideal, all accredited to you. The slender body, petite waist, and wide hips are a testament to your hard work, hours spent lifting weights in the gym, time invested in dieting and restricting food, and periods spent squeezing your body in a waist trainer. This replaced the corset and contributed to the changing face of the liberated women. The empowered woman was the athletic woman. Neoliberal rhetorics emphasise self-improvement and refinement. Modern shapewear was an extension of this: Spanx and more recently, Skims, are solutions to the ever-growing beauty expectations.


They offered a chance to participate in the politics of empowerment whilst also conforming to neoliberal beauty standards. Shapewear could be feminist. 


Over the last few years, fashion has become more geared towards simplicity and functionality. Therefore fashion through shapewear is the ‘basics’ every woman needs in her wardrobe, a very different image from the early corset, which was intentionally dramatic and extreme.


The triumph of Skims shows the desire to go back to the ‘neutrals’ and ‘basics’, but also to make something inherently restrictive and confining, comfy and liberating.


Perhaps this is what made Skims the popular alternative to Spanx. 


Over time, we have seen feminist ideals be commodified.


By presenting the average woman as the empowered consumer, we can freely engage in the marketplace which asserts different beauty pressures. Women’s bodies have always been scrutinised, and the appeal of shapewear is clear. Our relationship with beauty has always been complex, narratives such as 'beauty is pain' help push the idea to be considered desirable, and we must engage in some sort of sacrifice. There may be a change, however, to a nuanced expression of beauty. Reworking shapewear into a comfortable but fitted garment makes their newfound popularity unsurprising and history tells us it is not going anywhere anytime soon.

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