Any colour as long as it's not black

Metropolitan life: We're in the midst of a hosiery revolution. And that means out with black tights. Whatever will women do? asks Louisa Saunders

For an entire generation of women, they've become a fashion staple. They make fat legs look thin, thin legs look positively coltish, and they draw a discreet veil over less than perfect ankles and general unsightly knobbles. No wonder we love our black opaque tights.

But after nearly a decade of domination in the hosiery drawer, this most trusty of fashion favourites may be facing extinction. As the catwalk's chocolate browns and blondes hit the shops, suddenly black opaque tights are wrong, wrong, wrong. Coloured and textured ones, crocheted, lacy and herringbone, will have to do the job.

If this were merely a diktat from fashion pundits, it could be brazenly ignored. After all, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to persuade us to trade them in for American Tan. But this smacks less of orders from on high than of real, organic change. "They suddenly look like fat German schoolgirls' Strumpfhosen, all dull and dusty," says Lucy Turpin, 32, who nevertheless plans to go on wearing hers. "But they're so flattering. Not having racehorse legs, I don't have a choice."

"I look like a scene-shifter or a Goth," says Katrina Morgan who, like many in their early thirties, has rounded off her uniform black with black opaques for much of her adult life. She is now consigning hers to the dustbin, though with great regret.

The sea change began on the catwalks last spring, with faux-frumpy autumn styles from the likes of Prada and Miu Miu: sky-high strappy shoes teamed with woolly jumpers and longer A-lines in faintly orthopaedic browns and beiges. "When short skirts were in fashion, black opaques looked OK," says Melanie Rickey, fashion writer for the Independent. "But black opaques worn with the slightly longer 'frumpy' skirts make you look like a nurse." Which is where Prada's patterned woolly tights came in. These much-coveted items sell for pounds 95, and when Wolford cannily followed through with their own version, Follow Me, at a more earth-bound pounds 22, even they were knocked sideways by the response. The tights have sold out in every major department store, and factories in Vienna are currently working overtime in an attempt to meet the demand.

But does this spell death for our beloved opaques? Not a bit of it. "They're still selling well," says Daniela Mayer of Wolford. "We've had increased sales for patterned tights, but there's been no drop in plain opaques. I think people will go on and on wearing them. They go with everything."

"They're just taking a back seat for while, while other styles take the limelight," agrees Mary Flack of Fenwick, who none the less reports that patterned, lacy and coloured tights are waltzing out of the shop. "You can wear the strappiest lace dress with black opaques and still feel quite OK." It was the very essence of brash late Eighties fashions that the overt sexiness of micro- minis was wittily dressed down with clumpy shoes and cover-up tights. It's a look that has its own peculiar allure.

"There's an element of bluestocking sexuality that I find very attractive,' admits Joe Cochrane, 30. "They give contour to the leg without displaying leg. Eroticism is about the hidden and they hide." "They make you look sexy without making you look like a slapper," says Helen Healy, 31, who's hanging on to hers: "They have nothing to do with style, they're just an essential, like jeans are." "You can wear very short skirts without looking obscene," agrees Lucy Turpin. "Lacy tights are fake, dictated by designers. I don't believe in it."

Kim Stringer, fashion and beauty director of Elle magazine, finds the new patterned tights inspiring. "They look great, they feel great, they jazz everything up. They make fashion fun again," she enthuses. But die- hard black opaque addicts needn't despair. "If you wear them with red shoes or a pink suit they could still look good," she assures. "I'm sure they'll continue."

Which is just as well, because some women aren't going to give them up without a fight. "If they're going to stop making them," says Tania Marks, 28, "I'm going to fight my way into the stores, knocking old ladies aside, and stockpile, stockpile, stockpile."

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