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Leg up on a trend The nation is warming to tights, a look that Western New York has had covered for years

Finally, a fashion trend we're on top of.

Or, more accurately, a trend we've taken by the seat of the pants and run with.

This year, one of the hottest runway trends to hit mainstream America is tights.

Last spring, when fashionistas were already wearing leggings under flowing boho skirts and minis, designers on both sides of the Atlantic were showing legwear for the first time in close to a decade. Tights were shown by Donna Karan and Michael Kors, Balenciaga and Burberry, Prada and Marc Jacobs. And though Dolce & Gabbana showed sweatery white tights and Gucci showed neon brights, the hottest fashion leg-look by far was black opaque tights.

Of course, black tights in Buffalo are not a trend, they are a lifestyle. But this year, the hosiery industry reports that women -- even in places where the words "wind chill" have no meaning -- are embracing the covered leg.

And in places where black or gray tights aren't quite so popular, footless tights (a slightly less bulky version of leggings,) have attained an, um, toehold where bare legs have reigned supreme since the late '90s.

The trend has hosiery manufacturers rejoicing, as they are experiencing their first sales increases since the bare-leg trend began a decade ago.

According to the NPD Group, a market researching firm, hosiery sales dipped 12 percent between 2003 and 2005; sales of tights declined 26 percent in the same period.

In contrast, sales of Hue's footless tights tripled in the last three months of 2005. And Internet retailer reports selling 80 percent more footless tights between April and June 2006 than it had between October and December 2005.

This season, women who gradually gave up their pantyhose and tights when Casual Fridays morphed into working online from home and when pumps gave way to mules and sandals are welcoming the fresh look.

A large part of the tights turnaround can be attributed, like every other trend, to the inevitable ebb and flow of the fashion cycle. As any woman who lived through the Calvin Klein and Jordache jean free-for-all in the '70s can attest, when jeans become skin-tight, tights and leggings cannot be far behind. (Back then, disco and Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical" video also followed. With luck, those will be averted this time around.)

Footless tights -- shown with minis and cowboy boots and thigh-length tunics and ballet flats -- began really working their way into the mainstream's collective fashion consciousness last spring. When they were still cropping up in the heat of summer, many women's horrified "OH GOSH NO!s" changed into "Hmm, maybe those would look cute with my . . ."

Improvements in technology have made tights -- both with and without feet -- more appealing to women of all ages, according to the Hosiery Association. The sagging and pilling of '80s leggings has been minimized by innovations in the manufacturing process as well as the introduction of microfiber and other durable fibers.

Jetaun Jones, owner of BeYouTiful on Elmwood Avenue, says she has seen a wider age range of women wearing tights lately: "literally from 8 to 80."

Also giving a boost to the trend, experts say, has been the introduction of "shapewear" -- such as that developed in the late '90s by the Spanx brand -- which has helped women readjust to the long, lean leg look.

Originally marketed to women on home shopping channels as an alternative to control-top pantyhose to wear under trousers and skirts, Spanx's footless tights have become widely available at department stores and specialty chains like Chico's and Lane Bryant, and have inspired numerous knockoffs, so many women already have a pair in their lingerie drawers.

Still, wearing leggings when you are not runway-model slim can be tricky. And not too practical in Buffalo during slush-and-snow season.

Tights, on the other hand, are far more forgiving, not to mention versatile. And women in Buffalo are so accustomed to tights that even designers' suggestions that they wear them with party dresses for holiday and gauzy white dresses in early spring do not seem all that off-the-wall.

"I carried a charcoal grey trapeze-style dress by designer Rachel Pally. The dress was jersey and I often advised my customers to pair it with opaque tights," Jones said. "Jersey dresses are an excellent match for tights because it makes for a very neat, pulled-together look."

Fashion editors agree that black opaques -- and, to a lesser degree, footless tights -- allow more mature women to acknowledge a fashion trend without dressing "too young."

"This is is a great way for more mature women to get away with short skirts," said Patty O'Brien, a local style expert who represents the Carlise and Doncaster clothing lines. Tights and leggings are "very elongating and flattering."

They are also a relatively inexpensive way to update a wardrobe, especially a Western New Yorker's wardrobe.

Some designers also think that a tight-clad leg lends women an air of authority that has been missing in recent seasons.

"I love mousey-gray opaque stockings," designer Wolfgang Joop told the Wall Street Journal last spring. A woman in tights "looks like a strong, modern, practical-thinking woman, who is walking, not riding in a limousine," he said. Which is not to say that some young women (ahem, Britney, Paris, Lindsay) who ride in limousines couldn't benefit from a nice pair of tights.

Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for NPD Group, has stated that hosiery insiders expect tights and leggings to be a huge impulse shopping item this holiday season, particularly because they are so widely available at reasonable prices. J.C. Penney, for example, offers a package of two pairs of textured tights for $12. The Gap's range from $9.99 to $17.95, and Target has some styles for as little as $5.99. That's just a dollar or so more than that magazine -- you know, the one with the headline promising to help you "Completely Makeover Your Life in 2007!" -- that you're going to toss in the cart.

And then, there's that crucial selling point Western New Yorkers know all about: They keep your legs warm.



History of fashion legwear

Neolithic Era -- Early Man -- or more likely Early Woman -- figures out how to spin yarn.

1560 -- Queen Elizabeth I nearly loses her head when she receives her first silk stockings. Wouldn't you?

1888 -- Black stockings become ubiquitous, seen even with tennis dresses and bathing costumes.

1938 -- E.I. DuPont de Nemours, previously known for its dynamite production, invents nylon, sell 64 million pairs

1941-1945 -- Women sacrifice their nylons to the war effort, sales of eye pencil skyrocket.

1945 -- War ends; Macy's Herald Square sells out of 50,000 pairs of nylons in six hours.

1965 -- Mod Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton in their mini skirts spark a craze for colored, patterned and textured tights.

1970s A.D. -- Disco and the fitness craze make tights and leggings de rigeur.

Late 1990s -- Fashionistas and starlets banish hosiery to fashion limbo; use faux tans to simulate stockings.

2006 -- Tights make a comeback.

-- Compiled from Internet sources

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