FASHION : The Lithe and Lean Leotard

If you haven't been to aerobics class in a while, you may be in for a shock. Get ready for a close encounter with a G-string leotard, most likely being worn by the woman in front of you, and most certainly revealed to the fullest effect when the bend-over exercises begin.

Like the thong bikini that preceded it--seen first on Brazilian beaches several summers ago--the look-as-leotard is reasonably demure in front, but barely there in back. And it's by far the most popular aerobic exercise fashion silhouette of the summer.

"Probably about 70%-80% of women in class are wearing them now," says Karen LeCourt, aerobics manager of the Sports Connection clubs in Manhattan Beach and South Bay.

The racy shape has become so accepted that a more conservative model, being offered by some designers, rates a distant second in sales. "The semi-thong is wavering; I don't think it's going to last," says Bev Ebe, who represents Ko-fe and Gotta Have It, two popular dancewear collections. "Full fanny people aren't going to wear it at all. And once the others get used to the thong, why would they go back to a wider bottom?"

Some observers say it looks uncomfortable to wear. But enthusiasts swear the style is actually more comfortable than traditional leotards that tend to ride up the legs during workouts. Ballet dancers for whom leotards were first invented have long been rolling theirs up to imitate thongs, in order to make exercising easier.

"They felt they could lift their legs up better with the leotard out of the way," explains Joyce Stevens, owner of Karabel Dancewear.

Stevens' several Fairfax-area shops have been popular with professional dancers and exercise instructors for two decades. Lately, a lot of them buy thongs as wardrobe for rock videos and cable TV shows, but not for regular TV yet. They're considered too revealing for prime time, she says.

Most women wear a thong leotard over cotton Spandex tights or bicycle shorts. And many designers consider it more flattering than the thong bikini against bare skin.

"You get a better look than being naked, that's for sure," says dancewear designer Gilda Marx about the thong- tights combination.

For less than perfect legs, LeCourt points out, dark colors create a slimming effect. And the high cut makes all types of legs look longer.

Like so much else in body-revealing fashion, the thong is most attractive on women who have worked off every extra inch from their hips and toned their gluteus maximus muscles-- glutes, as aerobic instructors call them. But LeCourt argues that women with less than perfect figures who want to wear the look should do so.

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