WHOSE HOSE IS IT ANYWAY? Tips for finding the niftiest nylons without running your legs off

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Be tall. Be thin. Be young.

Alas, that's what one fashion director recommended when asked for tips on how best to coordinate hose with fall's new outfits.

Well, if you're all of those things, you've got it made. If not, applaud her honesty. . . . and remember, she also said that there now are so many options for legwear that you're sure to find something flattering.

And she's right: Driven by a combination of innovation, technology and pure marketing, women's hosiery is available now in a truly bewildering array of shades, weights and styles. For example, the Hanes Silk Reflections line alone annually offers 447 different styles and colors from thigh highs and ultra sheers to body shapers and light support hose.

The only problem with choice, as every woman who has ever dressed in a hurry is well aware, is that one must actually make a decision.

What follows is a roundup of information designed to help when you're standing in the middle of a department store in the grips of a very real pantyhose panic.

DESPERATELY SEEKING -- WHAT?

Last spring, designers Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi and Richard Tyler tipped us off that black opaque hose would no longer reign supreme by showing models sporting sheer and nude hosiery.

Sure enough, this fall, skirt lengths are all over the place -- and so is the accompanying legwear. Everything from thigh highs to boot socks or from tights to sheer pantyhose goes. To top it off, an increasing number of companies offer pantyhose with varying kinds of control.

And after years in which neutrals and black were fashion mainstays, color is making a splash. Winter whites and ivories are plentiful and are sometimes matched with pastels. Tonal looks -- for example, a dark green outfit paired with dark green hose -- are also a good choice because they create a long, clean, slim look.

"Your best bet is to create a head-to-toe line [of color]," says Heather Femia, fashion director for Nordstorm in Washington and Baltimore. "However, I'm not advocating people going around in all-orange outfits. To compromise, wear a burnt-orange dress with brown hosiery and brown shoes."

So, if you love short skirts -- wear them. And pair them with opaque hose or anklets, or try bulky socks and clunky boots. If you prefer higher fashion looks, try sheer pantyhose in nude or pale colors from gun metal to eggshell with mid-length to short skirts.

Paler tones worn on the legs call for a bit of discretion, however. "Don't wear stockings that are lighter than your skirt because it visually chops you in half. And don't wear shoes that are darker than the pantyhose, it will look clunky."," says Nancy Schnurnberger, spokeswoman for the National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers.

Aim to create a clean visual line, she says. "It will make you look taller and who doesn't want to look taller?"

If shock value is your version of fashion, try a super-mini with thigh highs. But, says anonymous the fashion director: "If you're not very young, very thin, think of another look."

There's no need, however, to throw out the old standbys -- black opaque hose or black tights. If that's the look you like, wear it. "I say, 'Don't part with those opaque tights,' " says Ms. Femia. "Just keep on with the black, black, black, but try brightening your look with a black skirt, black turtleneck and a bright jacket."

With all the options out there, says Ms. Schnurnberger, "You can have fun with pantyhose -- like with jewelry."

THE PANTYHOSE JUNGLE

All you have to do is find your way through the jungle of pantyhose that is in every department store.

After all, it's a simple matter of choosing what color (anything from black to never-so-nude) and what style (anything from sheer, with sheen, without sheen, opaque, no control, light control or grip-you-till-you-can't-breathe).

Just chant to yourself: "Pantyhose manufacturers need me, not the other way around."

In fact, the trend toward more casual dressing, a rise in popularity in pantsuits and trousers, and America's love affair with tights caused pantyhose sales to drop 7.5 percent last year. And, in the past five years, the volume of sheer pantyhose sales has dropped nearly 40 percent, says Frank Oswald, marketing consultant for Du Pont Co.

"Sheers were your mother's everyday uniform," he says. "But the role of sheers has changed from 'my everyday legwear uniform' to 'I now wear sheer when I need that look.' "

Slumping sales or not, American women go through an average of 17 pairs of pantyhose a year, according to the NAHM. And last year they ran up a hosiery bill of $2.4 billion.

Most salespeople recommend initially surveying the market by buying several brands and styles of pantyhose before choosing the one that works for you.

Though this suggestion seems incredibly time-consuming and annoying, I found testing hosiery for this article [see box] extremely illuminating: All hosiery is not alike. It's worth the time and cost to find which brand you prefer.

Start by reading the packages, suggests Mr. Oswald.

Most pantyhose is made of nylon (which gives sheerness) and spandex, also referred to by its trade name Lycra (which gives stretch). If you want a sheer, evening look, go for a pantyhose with a high percentage of nylon -- and so on.

Opaque hose is made of thicker yarns and so offers both more coverage of your leg and more durability. "Run-resistant" hosiery is made of heavier, less luxurious yarns that get fewer runs, but still form holes. A new brand, which guarantees no runs, but makes no such promises about holes is on the market: Brooke Shields Forever Sheer, manufactured by International Pantyhose Inc. It sells for about $3.50 a pair.

When looking at the size charts, focus on the weight measurements -- they will give you the best indication of your size. In addition, if your measurements fall on the border of one size, don't hesitate to go up a size: You'll be happier and the pantyhose will never tell. Remember, the better they fit, the longer they'll last.

A recent innovation worth noting is the addition of microfibers, invented by Du Pont Co., to the weave of pantyhose. This adds a marvelous softness to the "hand" or feel of legwear. Microfibers do not add durability, says Ms. Oswald.

"You can decide how soft you want your pantyhose and choose between microfiber or no microfiber. Just look on the package of sheer hose," he says. "But you don't buy microfiber to get a stronger or sheerer sheer -- only for softness. It is also a more expensive yarn so microfiber pantyhose will be at the higher price end."

TAKING CONTROL

Whether to help aging baby boomers or to reinvigorate sloping sales, hosiery manufacturers are churning out all kinds of pantyhose with all kinds of control.

In 1991, "Donna Karan started this idea. She took the basic control top, a garment you'd wear to shape up your abdomen and derriere. She extended the control down the thigh and called them the Body Toners," says Mr. Oswald.

Ranging from $12.50 to $18.50, the Body Toners, which are manufactured by Hanes, amassed $5 million in sales their first year out. And as other manufacturers like Calvin Klein follow Donna Karan's lead and produce a plethora of control garments, American women have been snapping them up and squeezing them on.

"There is a return to more shape in women's fashions so I think that leads us into more control and smoother lines," says Kathie Betts, trend manager for Sears. "Women are not interested in returning to the girdle because they don't like the feel and they are in better shape these days. But they are finding that they have a need for light support and control."

How stockings stack up

This is the story of a day in the life of several kinds of pantyhose -- as worn by one woman, who usually falls in the size B range. The brands were chosen by polling five department store managers and an industry analyst about which styles stand out in their minds as terrific -- or which sell best.

BRANDS: Wolford Day & Night ($35); Donna Karan Sheer Satin ($9); Hanes Silk Reflections ($4.95); Donna Karan MiniBody Toners, ($12.50); Calvin Klein Ultra Sheer ($7.75); Jockey for Her Soft Elegance ($7); Hanes Smooth Illusions ($8.50).

GENERAL FIT: Wolford: excellent all around; DK Sheer Satin: makes you feel beautiful; Hanes Silk Reflections: comfortable, not luxurious but adequate; DK MiniBody Toners: fits well but grips well, too; Calvin Klein: comfortable. Jockey for Her Soft Elegance: gripping but comfortable, veeeerrry stretchy; Hanes Smooth Illusions: can't get them on. Crotch droops so much you can't walk, thighs are pinched painfully.

GETTING THEM ON: Wolford: slip into them with a sigh of relief; DK Sheer Satin: slip 'em on and zip out the door; Hanes Silk Reflections: takes some tugging; DK MiniBody Toners: pull on surprisingly easily given their grip; Calvin Klein: some tugging necessary; Jockey for Her Soft Elegance: so elastic that the color clumps up in bands; Hanes Smooth Illusions: I never really got them on all the way.

LOOKS: Wolford: seemingly indestructible. No pulls, no tiny flaws visible; DK Sheer Satin: no pulls, no snags; Hanes Silk Reflections: color uneven; DK MiniBody Toners: pretty darn tough; Calvin Klein: prone to pulls, not shiny; Jockey for Her Soft Elegance: color uneven, no snags; Hanes Smooth Illusions: some pulls, no snags.

COMMENTS: Wolford: if only we could all afford them. (In Baltimore, available only at Nan Duskin); DK Sheer Satin: tough price, but a tough and comfortable performance; Hanes Silk Reflections: not bad for price; DK MiniBody Toners: sit-ups might be easier and you could breathe, too; Calvin Klein: Take 'em or leave 'em; Jockey for Her Soft Elegance: soft, but grips like a wet suit; Hanes Smooth Illusions: makes sausages seem unfettered.

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