What Your Legs Say About You

Hosiery used to be boring. Stylish women virtually dropped it in recent years, opting for bare legs and careful pedicures. Check out the Wall Street Jounal’s take on suddenly hot hosiery looks.

The Gams Graph

But now, tights and stockings are exploding into fashion, with a rainbow of brilliant hues and eclectic patterns.

This spring—a time when legwear used to be put away—DKNY is shipping new looks to stores that include lace, floral sheers, a swirly trompe l’oeil pattern, and “distressed” hosiery that looks like it’s torn. The Hue brand has tights and sheer stockings that span the universe of patterns from brocade to paint-splattered.

[fashpic1] ReutersFishnets appeared Jean-Paul Gaultier’s recent couture collection.

Whatever your hunger, there’s hosiery to satisfy it. The new looks make a vivid addition to the season’s minimalist clothes. A pair of mod orange legs can enliven a white-on-white outfit. Spiderweb mesh stockings can offer a black skirt a touch of Mudd Club insouciance.

The problem: With all that personality, today’s hosiery can make an outfit—or completely derail it. As with jeans, some savvy decision-making is in order when it comes to the office. Since our legs are speaking so loudly these days, it’s important to consider what they’re saying.

Sarah Whittaker, a Savannah, Ga., image consultant, looks at workplace clothing as battle dress, which should be strategically planned. “There are penalties in everyday work environments,” she says. “If someone wears the wrong tie, you may not think they’re worthy of working with you on a project.”

Women have to be even more careful in predominantly male offices. “You may think it’s just a pair of red tights,” says Ms. Whittaker. “But actually, it can make a big difference” in how you are perceived.

[fashpic2] Catwalking/Getty ImagesFishnets were also featured in Balmain’s spring/summer show.

Another important consideration is the office you work in. People working in conservative fields, such as law, accounting, or money management, should only cautiously reveal their inner punk at work.

Avoiding a ‘Goth Girl’ Look

“I adore free spirits. I hire them all the time,” says Patty Edwards, a frequent CNBC contributor and chief investment officer of Trutina Financial in Bellevue, Wash. But “if I walk into a brokerage and they look like Goth girl with multi-striped leggings, I’m not going to feel good leaving my money there.”

Indeed, Judith Bowman, a Smithfield, R.I., consultant whose specialty is protocol, advises that if there’s any doubt at all about what’s appropriate, women should stick with conservative hosiery—nude, beige, or black-opaque.

Wearing sweater-knit tights, so reminiscent of school yards and pinafores, could buttonhole you as someone’s assistant.

[fashpic3] WireImage/Getty ImagesBrighter hues popped up at the shows of designer Wunderkind.

Yet there are a few places where colorful or patterned legs can help soften your image. Ms. Edwards says she would like to see “wild tights” on a doctor, for instance. “It tells me they’re open enough to see me as a person,” she says. Also, those working in creative industries—a growing segment of our economy—have long leashes when it comes to style. The unadorned clothing styles coming out for spring leave room for excitement on the legs.

Working the Contrasts

To pull off a bold leg look, keep your overall statement simple. Colorful or patterned tights and sheers look best worn under a block of color—like a solid-color suit or dress. If your suit is heavily adorned or busy, go with plainer legs. Be sure that the personality of your legwear matches your upper body: Distressed hose are too Sid-and-Nancy for your interview suit.

When it comes to colors, khaki is the new neutral. Nearly all of DKNY’s styles come in a choice of khaki or black, including the distressed and lace versions.

And don’t be afraid of lace. It’s a hot look for spring in all areas of the wardrobe, from dresses and tops to even shoes. Again, if your suit sports lace, your legs probably shouldn’t. If you think a full leg of lace would be too much for your office, you could try knee-high lace socks, worn with pants and closed-toe shoes.

[fashpic4] Catwalking/Getty ImagesBright legs also appeared at Manish Arora.

A Tip: Tall Boots

Sometimes a little bit of pattern can go a long way. Wearing knee-high boots can tone down a loud or racy pair of tights, because only a sliver shows above the knee.

In an office-casual environment, stylish hosiery could enliven a conventional look, says Cincinnati-based image consultant Jill Haney. At the headquarters of Procter & Gamble, one of her corporate clients, she says, a chic-but-conservative gray dress could be spiced up with purple hose.

Purple, she notes, is a power color. And in most professions, the ultimate question is how powerful you look. “Set a standard for yourself,” says Ms. Whittaker, “and decide what sort of authority you want to have.”

Write to Christina Binkley at christina.binkley@wsj.com

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