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Jeans lowdown: Waistbands are inching up

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Waistlines are inching up on hemlines as fashion's barometer. Navel-obscuring in the '80s, they were navel-baring a few years ago, and this fall they're creeping up toward the bellybutton again.

Hipbone-hugging styles still dominate mall racks and high school hallways. But the fashion-forward flock is donning pants and jeans that graze the ribcage, as paraded on recent Fashion Week runways. And the rest of us are realizing that pant choice shouldn't have to dictate underwear choice.

Retailers are responding, not just because higher waists are fashionable but also because consumers are demanding them. Hence, the emergence of "midrise" or "classic rise." In ads and in stores, manufacturers are grouping their wares by rise rather than wash or leg cut.

Emphasizing, let alone offering, a choice in rises is a departure of late. Many makers haven't labeled their jeans "low rise" in years because that was the standard.

These days, Old Navy's four fits sink to "ultra-low waist" and soar to "at waist." Levi's three rises range from sitting "well below natural waist" to "at natural waist." Lee's mass-market rises vary from 8 1/4 inches to 11 1/2 inches (from crotch to waist), but what sells best is the 10-inch midrise.

"Women didn't necessarily feel comfortable in either" extreme, says Lee's Liz Cahill.

The multiplicity of waistband heights suggests "we've entered into a new era in fashion," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Fashionworld. "It's no longer about one way, one size, one trend fits all."

Just a few years ago, the jeans dominating the premium market required either a bikini wax or a very long shirt. Those 5 1/2- to 6 1/4-inch rises are now "out of fashion," declares Diana Tabeshi, the designer behind the new high-end Denim for Immortality. Tabeshi was tired of having to work for what became a too-low rise: "You have to watch where you sit and when you bend down."

Her label's compromise? A choice of two rises, 7 1/2 inches or 8, that are "sexy and sophisticated for today's woman." Stores, she reports, are selling out three months' inventory in three weeks. "That's telling me something."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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