But many either don't get it or simply reject it.
Judging by the nyloned legs still striding into upscale restaurants, theaters and fancy parties, many women either don't get it or simply reject what may be the biggest fashion about-face in recent history. Traditional pantyhose, the longtime staple of women's chic, have gone out of style.
Way out of style. Slip on off-white, beige or navy hose and you might as well be wearing a long pleated skirt and Hush Puppies.
Carolyn Brundage, co-founder of Fashionista.com (www.fashionista.com), put it succinctly: "The bare leg reigns."
And divas accept few excuses. Style is unconcerned with the advent of chilly weather, your pale calves, varicose veins or what your mama said.
Sara Rogers, a trend specialist for the Mall of America outside Minneapolis, saw women showing their legs in dresses and stilettos or high strappy sandals last winter. They had valets drop them off at the door, then walked briskly into the warm building.
Marisu Olivero, an instructor for the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tampa, said pantyhose are so passe some European stores no longer sell them.
The reasons behind this are many, not the least of which are new inventions. Quick tanning booths and spray-on "stockings" are instant cures for pale skin and scars that women once relied on pantyhose to hide. The growing popularity of open-toe and mule shoes furthered the trend because neither looks good with pantyhose.
The shift has left the $6.3-billion industry that produces hosiery and socks scrambling to reinvent itself and to recover from double-digit declines in sales, said Sally Kay, president of the Hosiery Association, which represents more than 300 manufacturers and distributors worldwide.
For four decades, pantyhose were to dresses what ties were to men's suits. They were created in 1959 as a practical means of eliminating multiple undergarments. Instead of wearing panties and stockings with garter belts, a woman could have it all in one. The idea grew in popularity in the 1960s as supermodel Twiggy sashayed down runways introducing the world to miniskirts too short for garters.
Then the 1990s brought a trend toward increasingly casual fashion. Last year, sales for trouser socks, knee highs and other hosiery were down 12 percent, Kay said. Manufacturers are rejoicing in a decline of only 3 percent in the past six months, a sign that the downward spiral is slowing.
Kay said the industry is doing a better job of listening to what the consumer wants and needs. With retro movies "Moulin Rouge" in 2001 and "Chicago" in 2002 came a demand for fishnet stockings and pantyhose with visible seams down the back of the leg. Hosiery companies seized the opportunity, creating fishnets with varying net styles and colors.
The recent turn toward understated dresses and skirts opened the door for hosiery to add flavor to the wardrobe. For instance, fishnets, opaque tights in bright colors and textured hose with fancy weaving designs became doable with basic monotone dresses and skirt outfits. The embellishments transform "legwear," as it is now called, from an old-fashioned necessity to a stylish accessory.
Brundage, who has homes in Chicago and Tampa, said she has seen businesswomen in New York sporting nude-toned fishnets with suits to the office. "It's actually nice," she said.
In Little Rock, Ark., the fashion elite are wearing black and nude-toned fishnets over ultra sheer pantyhose, said Christine Bailey, a partner and buyer at Barbara Jean Ltd., a high-end boutique there.
Bailey said she stocks mostly fishnets and textured tights, some of which can cost $100 or more. She also carries some very sheer nude tones and a few pairs of black pantyhose for women who "won't give them up." (Consultants vary on whether ultra sheer hose that match the skin and sheer black hose are acceptable.)
Fashion-conscious though she may be, Bailey does not hold up the bare leg as the pinnacle of style. In fact, she cautions that the look is not for everyone.
"Our young girls will do that if they stay in the tanning bed all year long," she said. "But the older we get, we have little spots on our legs and veins that we show, and it's just not pretty. I have seen older women try to do this, and it's just not pretty."
Use good judgment
Kathryn Finney, chief shopping officer for thebudgetfashionista.-com in New York, said people should rely on their good judgment, rather than fashion trends.
She agreed that pantyhose are not the commodity they once were, but said some situations cry out for sheer legs, such as a banker or a lawyer going to court. Other times, it's illogical to wear pantyhose. She and her mother had a talk about it. The mother says you wear stockings no matter what.
"If it's 100 degrees outside, it's ridiculous to wear stockings," Finney said. "If it's 20 degrees, it's ridiculous not to, and opaques and fishnets don't always work."
Few people argue with bare-legged femmes on shows like "Sex and the City."
But not everyone has bought into this idea for more professional venues.
The Today Show's Katie Couric, who has been baring her legs for some time, is the object of much scorn for it. She often sits casually in stylish short dresses and suits, legs crossed at the ankle, her feet disappearing inside high heels. Nothing it seems -- high-profile interviews or a recent chilly rain -- will force Couric to wear traditional pantyhose.
In the end, Finney said, "You dictate what a style is for you."
Real stylists wear what they want and get away with it, said Brundage. "Make your own rules."
Just keep in mind, fashionistas say that you should never, ever wear pantyhose with sandals.