NEW YORK -- Fashion is firmly focused on legs for the months ahead.
Legs can be bare, of course, but they look more intriguing when lightly clothed in lace, stretch nylon or even patterned silk.
So designers have provided all manner of leggings, tights and snug jump suits now usually called cat suits to cover the legs and serve as the basis for a variety of tops, from knitted cardigans for day to organza smocks for black-tie evenings.
Geoffrey Beene was the first to define jump suits as the modern ballgown, and some women, as well as other designers, have adopted his view.
For warm weather, the snug jump suit is softened by flyaway tops and tunics in thin fabrics; the same smock-like styles can also be slipped over short skirts and dresses.
The tights-and-top or leggings-and-sweater scheme of dressing was originally a style for young people, adopted for comfort and convenience rather than adherence to any high-fashion edict. But designers, especially Donna Karan, who have incorporated the look into their collections for some time, are finding new ways to develop the theme.
LOOSE OVER SNUG: Karan has used what she terms a "unitard" the basis of different outfits, usually combined with loose tops. The unitard is a stretch jump suit that can be worn alone or layered with other pieces.
In her newest summer collection, introduced last week, she presented leggings in graphic black-and-white plaids and added sleeveless fitted jackets or big tent-like tops in similar patterns.
With a hat and even with gloves, the outfit could be worn to the most fashionable restaurant, she said, adding, "You could even tie a skirt on over the leggings."
Retailers are enthusiastic about the success of stretch pants and tops, which some are calling as appropriate for summer dressing as the shirtwaist dress used to be.
NEARLY UNIVERSAL: Ellin Saltzman, vice president and corporate fashion director of R.H. Macy & Co., says "cotton and Lycra leggings and big tops were about as universal a fashion as you have right now. All kinds of women were wearing them over the Christmas holidays. They will continue next summer."
Retailers agree that the lightly covered leg is a fashion that reaches across the board, is appropriate for casual to dressy occasions, and for women of all shapes and ages. It is, they believe, one of the least controversial aspects of the fashion picture.