Underwear linguistics: shapewear

In the March 28 New Yorker, Alexandra Jacobs takes a romp in the world of shapewear (more staidly known as foundation garments), mostly for women: in the Annals of Retail, “Smooth Moves” (“How Sara Blakely rehabilitated the girdle”). A recurrent theme in the piece is the naming of these garments.

It started with Blakely’s Footless Pantyhose, in which footless is an accurate description of the garment — she decided “to chop the feet off a pair of control-top panty hose” (note that New Yorker style calls for separated panty hose, but the editors, correctly, left untouched the solidified pantyhose in the trade name) — though it might also have been designed to evoke footloose, and moved on to Power Panties, an alliteratively named lightweight girdle, all under the brand name Spanx.

Blakely chose the brand’s name partly for what she calls its “virgin-whore tension,” and partly for its “k” sound, which has a good track record in both business and comedy. [She’s done some standup comedy.] (p. 63)

The name also lends itself to word play, as when Blakely considers the attitude of “have your cake and eat it, too” that her products invite:

“You could also do ‘Happy Spanxgiving.’ ” Blakely said … ” ‘Stuff yourself, don’t worry about it.’ ” (p. 60)

A portmanteau. More follow: one of her most successful innovations, the Bra-llelujuah (with “a front closure and wide straps free of metal sliding adjusters” (p. 66), which shift the observer’s attention from a woman’s breasts to her back) and the Bra-Cha-Cha, a strapless bra (p. 68).

Along the way, we come across the company’s budget line, Assets (with its intentional play on ass), and new products for men, shaping undershirts in the Cotton Compression and Zoned Performance lines (the first is more alliteration, the second I haven’t yet figured one, though it might be an allusion to the zone defense in team sports).

From the International Jock website, where it appears that “zoned compression” is a major selling point of these undershirts:

This physique–improving, game-changing, seamless tank top is designed with cooling features and compression zones that transform the torso and chest. Makes any man look sharper, stand taller and feel stronger in his clothes.

•Zoned compression targets abs and torso
•Firms and tones chest
•Breatheasy ™ zones cool through underarms and back
•Lumbar support zone improves posture
•Wicks moisture
•Athletic tank style design for maximum mobility
•Eliminates bulk under clothes
•Fabric Content: 92% Nylon, 8% Spandex/Elastane

Every so often I wondered whether Jacobs’s piece hadn’t wandered over from the Shouts and Murmurs section of the New Yorker, its humor column, but the products are all genuine; the goofiness is in Jacobs’s telling.

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