THIS fall, Elisa Dahan is favoring a ladylike silhouette, including body-conscious dresses from Phillip Lim and D&G pencil skirts, all worn with a new favorite accessory: hosiery. “You suddenly have flawless legs without having to do anything,” said Ms. Dahan, 33, a Montreal-based mother of two and co-designer of Mackage, a brand of downtown chic outerwear.
Not long ago, few fashionable women could stand wearing pantyhose. In the 1990s, as office dress codes became more casual and the power suit became passé, many women abandoned hose entirely; a certain class of Manhattan socialite became known for venturing out even on freezing nights with bare legs.
Later they began to rely instead on products like Spanx for body contouring, and self-tanning lotions to conceal blemishes. “For many women, not wearing hose was part of a bigger rebellion against dressing up, and a celebration of their freedom,” said Laurie Ann Goldman, chief executive of Spanx.
But in a season when the fashion spotlight is on the leg, hosiery is finding a new generation of fans who don’t view stockings as a necessary evil mandated by office dress codes and social mores, but as a bona fide style choice with long-forgotten cosmetic powers. “It’s like that old trick cameramen use, putting a Wolford stocking over the lens to soften the look of skin,” said Dr. Patricia Wexler, a New York dermatologist who treats the fashion elite. “Except you’re actually putting it on the leg.”
Ms. Goldman said Spanx has seen more than 50 percent growth in its fashion sheers business in the last two years. And according to Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y., sales of hosiery grew 10 percent in 2011, from $ 900 million to $ 1 billion, and are on track to post similar gains in 2012. Mr. Cohen attributed the increase to the relative affordability of stockings compared with other accessories and the continued importance of the dress as a fashion trend. And, he said, given the current challenging job market, “women are dressing more to think about success.”
They’re also following, perhaps, what they see on celebrities. Since becoming Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, the young royal has rarely been seen in a skirt without stockings (palace protocol dictates that she not appear in public with bare legs), while Rihanna (a woman unfettered by any such sartorial edicts) recently flashed the tops of her flesh-toned thigh-highs while exiting a car. Lady Gaga has also flaunted her hose.
But “there are a lot of stars wearing them and you just don’t know they are because they are so well done — it’s one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets,” said Mary Alice Stephenson, a stylist and fashion commentator who said she wears sheer hose to black-tie events or when she thinks she might be photographed in a short skirt.
Stars are also “doubling up” on stockings, much like some celebrities (most recently the singer Adele) have admitted to doing with Spanx, for the same slimming and toning effect. Beyoncé Knowles, for example, frequently wears two pairs of hose — say a nude stocking beneath fishnets — when performing, said Heather Thomson, who helped dress the entertainer for public appearances as creative director of House of Deréon before founding the shapewear company Yummie Tummie and appearing in the cast of the “Real Housewives of New York City.”
“Stockings give her the confidence she needs to go on stage,” Ms. Thomson said, adding that Yummie Tummie will be starting its own line of hosiery (priced at $ 32 to $ 79 a pair) next fall.
The stockings of today bear little resemblance to those of the “Working Girl” era — starting with the prices. Pretty Polly, a brand from Britain that expanded to the United States in the summer of 2011, does a brisk business selling pantyhose with trompe l’oeil garters (the actress Selena Gomez and the singer Jessie J are fans, according to the company) selling for $ 25 to $ 34 a pair. Wolford, a high-end brand based in Austria, is offering sheer nude stockings with studded black bands à la “Fifty Shades of Grey” ($ 160).
Softer yarns, new knitting techniques (more open weaves and seamless finishes), and other innovations (like microencapsulated moisturizers) have made putting on and wearing hosiery a more pleasurable experience, companies say. “These are not the uncomfortable, tourniquet-type stockings women couldn’t wait to take off,” said Cathy Volker, executive vice president of global licensing for Donna Karan, which in September began selling the first new line of stockings the company had introduced to the marketplace in 10 years. Called Evolution, the line (priced at $ 28 a pair) features graduated compression, meaning the amount of pressure on the leg is greatest at the ankle and calf and decreases as the stocking moves upward.
Dr. Julie K. Karen, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said that while most hosiery has no medical benefit, a graduated stocking has the potential to improve circulation. “The whole dilemma with the leg veins is that they are fighting gravity all day long, trying to push the blood back to the heart,” Dr. Karen said, cautioning that people with large varicose veins may need medical-grade stockings that have greater compression to realize any benefit.
That’s the kind of hosiery that the New York-based hair colorist Sharon Dorram relies on to keep her legs energized and to help them from becoming riddled with spider veins during long days on her feet. “They’ve become a part of my wardrobe,” Ms. Dorram said, adding that she pairs her thigh-high compression stockings, for which she is measured in a medical supply store, with Soledad Twombly silk dresses and Lanvin cardigans. “I feel more pulled together,” she said of wearing the hose. “They make their own statement.”
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