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Sheer hosiery steps back onto fashion scene

So you thought they were gone gone forever -- until Kate Middleton hit the scene.

Then Marc Jacobs put them on the runway, Banana Republic partnered with "Mad Men" and, suddenly, everywhere you look, sheer hosiery seems to be in fashion again.

Since the heyday of the '80s, there's been a casual revolution, a revolt against power suits and the sexy secretary skirt. Both lent themselves to covered-but-sheer legs.

Now, why do women need pantyhose? They wear pants, get spray tans and slap on the Spanx. Because legs look better when you wear them, says Cathy Volker, executive vice president of global licensing for Donna Karan, including Donna Karan Hosiery.

"It's like mineral cosmetics on your skin but better," says Volker, who promises the pantyhose of today boasts many advances since previous versions. The fabric is more comfortable, the elastic less restricting and they can offer toning and shaping benefits, she says.

Celebrity stylist Sophia Banks-Coloma is sold. She wore sheer pantyhose to a recent red carpet event in Los Angeles. "I do think they are coming back. I especially love them in black or white with a seam up the back. We're not talking 'Mrs. Doubtfire' tan stockings but nice, flattering pantyhose and tights."

Erase any image of brownish, loose legwear that pools at the ankles, she says, and start imagining the stylish Duchess of Cambridge or her sister Pippa. No one is mistaking them as stodgy or uncool, Banks-Coloma says.

Noni Cavaliere, a social-media marketing specialist in New York, wears them; her favorites are those with the sexy Cuban heel and back seam. Pantyhose flatter and help a woman appear professional, feminine, she says.

"You have that 'Mad Men' influence everywhere, and the very feminine office look is popular again," says the 30-year-old Cavaliere. "I've worked on Wall Street where women wear suits and heels, and I've worked in the tech world where people wear ripped jeans, flip-flops and a ripped T-shirt. I couldn't do that."

She's not wearing them on the hottest days of the summer, of course, but on that first day with a fall chill, she'll likely be rocking the sheerest pair she can find. "I like the shiny ones that Kate Middleton wears. Like that compression of Spandex and how it looks with a pencil skirt."

Pantyhose should be a given for job interviews, says Julie Perez, a 22-year-old apparel studies student at the University of Arkansas. "My professors say, 'Hosiery -- you still have to do it. Yes, it's 2011, but you have to do it.' "

Perhaps stockings and even pantyhose as Betty Draper and Joan Holloway knew them are a thing of the past, says "Mad Men" costume designer Janie Bryant, and those uncomfortable things should stay that way. But if you're talking about a modern pair of textured tights, lace tights or seamed sheers (with the added benefit of shapewear), you could be at the forefront of the next big thing, Bryant says.

"The trend of the natural leg came to be, and people just gave in that this item was so uncomfortable -- and with the suntan leg, it was hard to get the right color. It's like the slip. It was old-fashioned. But then the slip came back in as streetwear, and I think the trend for legwear is that it's back and going strong -- although probably not the suntan ones."

Market research firm NPD puts women's hosiery sales in the U.S. at more than $3 billion, up 2.9 percent from May 2010 to May 2011.

Tights are the market leaders, showing an almost 30 percent increase in sales -- and stockings sales are up, too. Pantyhose sales, based on dollar amount, dipped 2.7 percent over the year, but Donna Karan's Volker says recent business of sheers is booming.

"For the Middleton generation, hosiery is new to them. They have always worn tights, and they don't see sheers as a necessary evil," she says. "They see it as an enhancement."

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