Sheer for spring -- done properly

THIS spring, going sheer doesn't mean dressing like a 1980s video vixen. Forget raunchy and think romantic -- ethereal chiffon floral dresses at Roberto Cavalli, sheer organza color-blocking at Jil Sander and Venetian brocades encased in sheer netting, as if in soft focus, at Dolce & Gabbana.

Yves Saint Laurent put sheer on the style map in 1968, when his collection of barely there chiffon blouses hit the runways at the height of the sexual revolution. In her 1984 "Like a Virgin" video, Madonna played peekaboo in a white lace and chiffon gown. The lingerie look took off then and surfaced again in the mid-'90s when the slip-dress was a trend.

Today's styles may be more conservative, but don't be fooled: They are no easier to wear.

"You really have to spend time playing with it to see what works on you," says Mary Alice Stephenson, a stylist who's know for creating polished, uptown looks for such celebrities as Drew Barrymore, Penelope Cruz and Gisele Bündchen.

Liquidy, light, feminine -- sheer is an important look in the stylist's spring repertoire. But sheer, Stephenson says, can be disastrous if done wrong: "It's about looking like a lady and not a slut."

Easier said than done.

Is it really possible to look sophisticated in a see-through outfit?

Absolutely. But the truthful answer is that most women in America don't do it well. You can't wear sheer like you're on the cover of FHM. You have to pair the look with ladylike pieces that you already have in your wardrobe. Put a sheer top under a tuxedo jacket or a big, lightweight sweater. Belt a sheer little dress over a camisole and boy shorts. And you can double layer too. It's about wearing sheer pieces like you'd wear a piece of normal clothing, only more elegantly.

I do not exactly have the body of Kate Moss. How can I make sheer work with my curves?

I don't think there are rules for weight. No matter what, if you're going to wear sheer, you'd better wear it with confidence. It takes guts and a sense of personal style. Curvier women like support so I suggest wearing a corset, bra or fitted T-shirt underneath. Do it a la Dolce & Gabbana with a pencil skirt and sheer blouse over a bustier. The reality is it's very difficult to get away with sheer. It's easier if you incorporate it as a layering piece within an outfit.

Does sheer work on all ages too?

Hollywood has basically taken the idea of what is age appropriate and smashed it against a wall. There are so many fantastic-looking women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Demi Moore to Madonna to the "Desperate Housewives" to Julie Christie -- they really do incorporate sheer into what they wear. It's what you pair it with. You don't pair it with too-tight jeans or sky-high stilettos. For summer, you can wear a pair of trouser jeans that you love and adore with a lightweight tank top over a fantastic bra.

Won't I look cheap if my bra is showing?

It depends on what bra you're wearing. The key is to not wear sheer in a vulgar way. Instead of a demi-cup, wear something that's a little more substantial. Victoria's Secret has great bras that are colorful and aren't so over the top. There are also lots of bodysuits, bustiers and camisoles with bras built in -- but take time to try them on to make sure that they don't bunch or add unwanted bulk. And incorporate what you already have in your wardrobe with your sheer pieces. You'll be surprised how polished your old jean jacket looks over a wispy chiffon blouse, even if your favorite lace bra is showing underneath.

I don't think my boss would be thrilled to see a La Perla peeking through my shirt during office hours.

If you're in a very corporate office, you can still wear sheer. Wear a sheer blouse underneath a jacket with a skirt or pants. Then you go for a cocktail and voila -- off goes the jacket and that blouse looks really sexy on its own. We all love to have little fashion secrets that make us feel feminine and good. Even hidden, it's still sexy. It's just done in a more elegant way.

How can you incorporate color?

Black sheer over a black bra is the stereotypical way that people wear sheer in America. Stay away from that. Play with pieces that are colorful. The important colors for spring are purple, fuchsia and blue. I think that's super feminine and sexy, less of a hard, black dominatrix look. I tend to like patterns on a piece that's a little sheer and not completely see-through. The look is a little bit easier to take in a semi-sheer, floral pattern.

Where do you gain your sheer inspiration?

Dolce & Gabbana and Jean Paul Gaultier are two designers that have really played with the idea of lingerie as outerwear. They're really at the forefront of sheer. I guess it's the idea of doing it in a ladylike way. Young designers like Proenza Schouler are inspired by lingerie in what they do. And Kate Moss does it right. She'll wear sheer with a belt over jeans.

How do you incorporate the look into your work?

In the 17 years that I've done fashion, I've used sheer on a lot of photo shoots. I'm using it on Michelle Monaghan for her "Made of Honor" premieres. One possibility is a J. Mendel dress with sheer worked in. On a "TRL" appearance [on MTV], she wore a gray chiffon dress by Tony Cohen. It didn't look sheer because it was layered with a gray slip-dress underneath.