Shaped to Fit : Unitards Are Becoming the One-Piece You Must Have

Some people call them unitards, others prefer catsuits. Either term defines the second skin that promises to be the hottest fashion item of the summer.

Dancers have worn them for decades, of course. Among ready-to-wear designers, Italy's Emilio Pucci was among the first to treat them as street wear when he introduced them in psychedelic prints nearly 25 years ago. Recently, New York designers Donna Karan and Norma Kamali have offered several variations. So has Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.

Designer labels range from $200 to several thousand for a couture look by Christian Lacroix, but varieties available in contemporary and junior departments of local stores start at about $40.

Some have suspender straps and require a T-shirt underneath. Others are one piece, with long or capped sleeves. Some do, some don't zip up the back. Some are cut wider through the hips for extra room. Necklines run the usual gamut, legs have stirrups, or end above the ankle.

Even expectant mothers are buying maternity versions of the body-clinging suit. By next fall, fashion directors at local stores predict that unitards will be among the top five fashion musts on most women's shopping lists.

"We're absolutely fired up about them," says Leslie Marks, fashion director at Robinson's, who sees them as a versatile, body wear basic. "You can start with a unitard and slip on a jacket or a skirt, or wear it alone for a linear look."

Among the high-price designers, Donna Karan has mastered the unitard as first layer in her recent collections, topped by circle-skirted dresses, sarong skirts, hooded anoraks or long, narrow man-tailored "boyfriend" jackets. Most big-name designers prefer the classic cut, with long sleeves and a jewel or mock turtle neckline, but Karan often opts for sportier, suspender styles, worn over white blouses or body-contoured tops in luxury fabrics.

Most of the lower-priced unitards this summer are Lycra and cotton knit blends. But, Marks says that this fall Robinson's will carry stretch velvet styles in the intimate apparel department.

Among the summer options at Nordstrom are earthy shades such as forest green, wine, mustard, espresso brown, navy and gray. Noticeably absent from the Nordstrom lineup is black, says June Rau, fashion coordinator for the company's Southern California stores.

At Robinson's, however, Marks says black is the most important color right now. There are also black and white houndstooth unitards.

Rau maintains that unitards are not just for rail-thin physiques. And Donna Karan, who wears a Size 10 or 12, and is often seen in her own label unitards under skirts and jackets, helps prove Rau's point.

"A lot of women who might be put off by them will be surprised at how well they fit and look," says Rau, pointing out that strategically placed gathers and flares at the hips and waist add fullness where some women need it.

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