The rise and fall of the female waistband

IS THERE A MOTHER anywhere in the United States who has not had an argument with her daughter over a waistband -- or rather, the lack of one?

A walk down any retailer's aisle presents an array of jeans that come to a screeching halt a full latitude shy of the waist. They seem to defy the laws of gravity, except when they don't, and we're treated to more information about a stranger's taste in underwear -- brand, color and size -- than we might have wanted to know.

Some moms enforce the sanctity of the natural waist and the chaste waistband; some moms cave in, buy their girls the low-rise model and hope that that this is as rebellious as things get. Because what we're really arguing about, of course, is sex. To be blunt, pelvic bones point to the crotch, and some die-hard romantics still believe that that path was meant to be revealed in private, intimate moments, not billboarded around town.

The moms who never give an inch endow the waistband with respectability, ignoring questions about whether we really dislike low-rise pants because we'd look like idiots in them. I once had a pair of apricot corduroy hip-huggers back when they were called hip-huggers, but of course now I know better.

No matter what we buy our daughters, most of us mutter about jeans that are racy, slutty, lacking in decorum. The collective tsk, tsk is as loud as an infestation of locusts, and about as forgiving.

I've been lucky so far. My daughter can read the odds on a given pair of pants in the height of my raised eyebrows, and some fights just aren't worth it. Then again, she's an old-movie fan, so her notion of style is cut with images of Barbara Stanwyck, of Grace Kelly, of Ingrid Bergman. This is not our field of battle: Until recently, I felt secure in the long-held belief that Levi's 501s are low-rise enough for any reasonable woman.

But when we were on vacation, we went to a museum fashion exhibit about a Danish queen whose waist made Scarlett O'Hara look like a linebacker. She couldn't have been that tiny without help -- each gorgeous ball gown, each travel ensemble, each riding habit was tainted for me by gruesome notions of what she must have been wearing underneath. How did the poor girl manage to breathe?

And then I had an epiphany: Perhaps the waistband isn't a symbol of civilized propriety after all. It's merely a vestige of the days when no self-respecting woman got dressed without a corset -- so why not abandon it as, over time, we have abandoned long-line bras, girdles, whalebone corsets and other devices of torture.

We don't need a waistband to hold up our pants; that's why women have hips. Waistbands exist only to ride up when we sit down or to chastise us when we ingest anything heftier than a lettuce leaf and a Perrier.

The next day I put on an old pair of summer pants that I'd packed because they had everything going for them, vacation-wise: They were loose, lightweight and extremely broken in. My daughter stared at me with affectionate pity. "Just turn the waistband down, " she said, "and then they'll be OK."

I did it; I unbuttoned the button and folded the band inside. I wore the pants like that to eat ice cream, to sit at a sidewalk cafe, to stroll the overheated streets -- where I saw lots of women of a certain age displaying equal disregard for the literal constraints of fashion.

I still don't like jeans with zippers as short as toothpicks, not for my daughter or anyone else. I still don't believe we were meant to see six inches of naked abdomen on women buying produce at the farmers market. That kind of exposure requires more of a relationship than you can establish choosing heirloom tomatoes from adjacent bins.

But I no longer endorse regular waistbands as the only dignified alternative, any more than I'd recommend dial-up Internet connections or three-channel black-and-white TV.

It is time to move on. A generation ago, we burned our bras to assert our independence -- and when we put them on again, they were slightly more user-friendly than their predecessors. For those of us who still believe in evolution, rejecting the waistband may be the next step in our politically correct striptease.

KAREN STABINER is the author of "My Girl: Adventures with a Teen in Training" (Little Brown, 2005).

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