Somewhere between the navel and the nether regions lies fashion's latest frontier.
It's that tantalizing swath of flesh between cropped top and hip-hugging jeans, a sensual strip that's gained prominence as waistbands have inched farther south than ever before.
This flesh-flashing trend started with Mariah Carey cutting off the tops of her jeans and continued with teeny poppers such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera stepping out with their taut lower abs exposed all summer. And even though many schools have taken steps to ban low hip-huggers, the look is set to become more mainstream in fall with the launch of Jennifer Lopez's new clothing line, which features pants and skirts so low-slung that bikini waxes will be a must.
"It's the new erogenous zone," said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale's. "Everybody is showing off tummies and belly buttons from Paris to Saint Tropez to Milan, and low-cut jeans are the jeans of the season."
The reason for this new form of flaunting, some say, is simple.
"We've been seeing cleavage for years -- cleavage is nothing," said Phillip Bloch, a Hollywood celebrity stylist whose clients have included Jennifer Lopez and Halle Berry. "With this, it's forbidden, it's taboo, it's like, 'Ooh, what's under there? How low can you go?"'
If recent magazine pictures of scantily clad starlets are any clue, the answer to Bloch's question appears to be: The lower the better.
Stars from actress Tara Reid to singer Jessica Simpson have been photographed at awards ceremonies and spotted on talk shows donning pants so low-slung that hip bones are in plain view. And everyone from artists on music videos to club hoppers has been spotted hiking her pants down and pulling her underwear up to achieve the exposed-thong effect.
The look began several years ago with the popularity of belly-button piercings and the rise of midriff exposure. But as shirts crept up and midriffs became less shocking, the focus began shifting south.
"With any kind of exposure, once you see a lot of it, it loses impact," said David Wolfe, creative director for the Doneger Group, a New York retail consulting firm. "We got so used to the idea of navels, and we've exposed just about every other part of the human anatomy in the name of sexiness. We have very little left to raise an eyebrow.
"This is the second-to-last resort, I guess," he added, "the last resort being full frontal exposure."
And with stores such as Bebe and Levi's still filling racks with low-rise offerings, the lower belly is likely to make a continued appearance through fall and beyond.
The biggest advantage of the low-rise look is, it visually lengthens the torso and has a slimming effect. And, by picking a short or long top, women can control the amount of skin they bare.
Maggie Winkel, merchandise manager for women's apparel at Levi's, said the company designed the low-rise line in December after seeing girls on the street mimicking Mariah Carey by cutting off the tops of their jeans.
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