Leggings. The word sends shivers up the spines of women packing even an ounce of extra padding below the waist.
But the clingy bottoms -- which traipsed back into style a few seasons back -- aren't going anywhere. In fact, some of the edgiest names in fashion recently unveiled amped-up new versions of the body-hugging staple for spring 2012.
Never fear. You don't have to be a size 2 to rock the hosiery-inspired pants. With everyone from Marc Jacobs to Lindsay Lohan creating leggings collections, there's an avalanche of fabrics, patterns and fits to choose from. And the best news is, leggings -- when they fit properly -- can feel as comfortable as a pair of flannel pajamas.
Leila Baboi, the West Coast staff stylist for Women's Wear Daily, contends that there's a pair of stretchy, skintight leggings for every woman -- regardless of age or body shape. What's the key to pulling off the look? "Pair them with a long and slouchy top," says Baboi, who has dressed Scarlett Johansson and Ashlee Simpson. "A cropped top or a too-tight tank will throw the balance off."
Here are some of the stylist's savvy tips on how to work the lean-and-mean look -- without adding extra pounds or delving into overly trendy territory:
Choose Long Over Cropped
Capri leggings are for spinning class -- not the office. They cut up the line of the body and can make your bottom half look shorter and chunkier. (We've yet to meet a woman who wants that!)
Instead, get a long-and-lean look by choosing leggings that hit at, or even slightly below, the ankle. Skip the gimmicky stirrup legging: It's an overly complicated style that's likely to peter out soon.
If you wouldn't have stripes or polka dots on your regular pants, don't try to pull them off in a legging. Cheetah-print or metallic leggings are strictly for fashion-forward 20-somethings -- and if worn with something simple and oversized on top, can be adorable. Over 35? Stick to solid black leggings or subdued prints, such as a gentle acid-wash or tone-on-tone all-over paisley. Designer David Lerner's weighty, well-made versions have a marked slimming effect.
Opt for Big Tops
Avoid looking like you're wearing a unitard, which means you'll want to balance the tightness of a legging with a roomier style up top. That's a cinch these days, since big is definitely huge in fashion right now. Boyfriend blazers, oversized tunics, slouchy button-down shirts and baggy sweaters are all perfect companions for leggings.
Look for Length
Pear-shaped figures aren't exempt from wearing the look but look best with an even longer top. A fetching outfit: Leggings paired with a roomy tank or tunic underneath a knee-sweeping cashmere cardigan.
Denim leggings, coined the "legging jean," are a sexy alternative to all-jersey leggings and offer a bit more thickness of fabric than all-knit varieties. Citizens of Humanity, J Brand and Goldsign all make chic legging jeans. Choose ones that have five-pocket styling on top to avoid the maternity-ish elastic waist.
Leather and PVC leggings aren't just for Rihanna and Lady Gaga. The decadent-looking drawers are a chic nighttime option when paired with towering stilettos and jackets and tops that are cut on the longer side. Nor is it a look solely for the young. Worn with a crisp white button-down shirt and statement earrings, leathery leggings are uber sophisticated. But be prepared to sweat -- your legs won't be catching even the suggestion of a breeze all night.
Leggings work with a bevy of different shoe styles. Ankle boots -- heeled or flat -- strappy sandals (again, high or low) and classic flats are all cute options. Just steer clear of '80s-esque pumps that don't have a covered vamp (the part of the shoe that covers the smooth, top side of your foot), which can turn a leggings ensemble from sassy to sour in seconds.
Emili Vesilindis a Los Angeles-based fashion writer who regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Times. She is also the co-founder of Style Section L.A., a Web site covering L.A. fashion, nightlife and culture.
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