Somewhere between the navel and the nether regions lies fashion's latest frontier.
It's that tantalizing swath of skin between cropped top and hip-hugging jeans, a sensual strip that's gained prominence as waistbands have inched farther south than ever before.
This flesh-flashing trend started with Mariah Carey cutting off the tops of her jeans and continued with teeny poppers like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera stepping out with their taut lower abs exposed all summer. And even though many schools have taken steps to ban low hip-huggers, the look is set to become more mainstream in the fall with the launch of Jennifer Lopez's new clothing line, which features pants and skirts so low-slung that bikini waxes will be a must.
"It's the new erogenous zone," said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale's. "Everybody is showing off tummies and belly buttons from Paris to Saint Tropez to Milan, and low-cut jeans are the jeans of the season."
The reason for this new form of flaunting, some say, is simple.
"We've been seeing cleavage for years -- cleavage is nothing," said Phillip Bloch, a Hollywood celebrity stylist whose clients have included Jennifer Lopez and Halle Berry. "With this, it's forbidden, it's taboo, it's like, 'Ooh, what's under there? How low can you go?' "
If recent magazine pictures of scantily clad starlets are any clue, the answer to Bloch's question appears to be: The lower the better.
Stars from American Pie 2's Tara Reid to singer Jessica Simpson have been photographed at awards ceremonies and spotted on talk shows donning pants so low-slung that hip bones are in plain view. And everyone from artists on music videos to club-hoppers has been spotted hiking their pants down and pulling their underwear up to achieve the exposed-thong effect.
The look began several years ago with the popularity of belly-button piercings and the rise of midriff exposure. But as shirts crept up and midriffs became less shocking, the focus began shifting south.
"With any kind of exposure, once you see a lot of it, it loses impact," said David Wolfe, creative director for the Doneger Group, a New York retail consulting firm. "We got so used to the idea of navels, and we've exposed just about every other part of the human anatomy in the name of sexiness. We have very little left to raise an eyebrow.
"This is the second-to-last resort, I guess," he added, "the last resort being full frontal exposure."
And with stores such as Bebe and Levi's still filling racks with low-rise offerings, the lower belly is likely to make a continued appearance through fall and beyond.
The biggest advantage of the low-rise look is, it visually lengthens the torso and has a slimming effect. And, by picking a short or long top, women can control the amount of skin they bare.
Maggie Winkel, merchandize manager for women's apparel at Levi's, said the company designed the low-rise line in December after seeing girls on the street mimicking Mariah Carey by cutting off the tops of their jeans. But sales didn't soar until this summer, when Levi's launched its Superlow television ad featuring a belly-button singing "I'm Coming Out."
"Low-rise is about an attitude," Winkel said. "We have them from size 1 to size 13, and if you have the attitude to wear it, you can pull it off. It's about being sexy and really feeling sexy and feminine in a pair of jeans."
Some, however, disagree.
Bloch cautioned that the look can be hard to wear if you have a fleshy lower abdomen.
"You can't have a lot hanging out," he said. "A little bit hanging over is cute, because women usually have a little bit of a paunch; they don't naturally have flat tummies. But you don't want stuff hanging over the sides.
"That's the problem we have with a lot of the girls on talk shows -- stuff hangs over the sides, and it's not pretty," he added. "You've gotta watch those little love handles -- and you don't want to have a big lunch."
And women attempting the pelvic flash should remember that the look works much better when they're standing up. So, when sitting down, adjust yourself to be sure that your belly isn't drooping over the top of your low-slung pants. Also, if you're going to go J. Low, consider it your duty to make an appointment for a bikini wax first.
As for the look's longevity, fashion and retail observers are predicting that low-risers won't be passe until after next summer.
"It will continue into the fall in spite of the fact that it's a really impractical idea for cooler weather," Wolfe said. "It's exciting and stimulating and shocking, and if that's what you want to be, if that's the only way you can get people to pay attention to you, I guess there's something to be said for it.
"Unless we can stop Britney Spears," he added, "I see no end in sight."