Jeans Rising

Mindy Stern, a life coach from Durango, Colo., likes the look of low-rise jeans. But the trim 34-year-old couldn't imagine leaving the house with her midsection exposed. And forget the so-called whale tail, when the top of a woman's thong is exposed in the back. "That's just tacky!" she says. For the past five years, though, low-rise jeans were just about the only style she could find. So Stern hung on to her well-worn favorites--purchased at Old Navy before waistlines plunged--and hoped for times to change.

Get out your credit card, Mindy. The denim tide is rising again. Stores around the country have begun stocking a new style of jeans, and the gap between the bellybutton and the belt is shrinking at last. Women who are too modest, too big--or maybe too tasteful--to wear pants that barely cover their pubic bone say they welcome the change. The new cut, called midrise, ends about two fingers below the navel and has a waistband that rests two thirds of the way between the hip and the smallest part of the waist. The Gap, which launched its own version of the midrise this season, called "Boy Cut," says they're already a hit. "They're flying off the shelves," reports Gap spokeswoman Kate Molinari. Levi's is introducing a new line of midrise jeans this fall.

Back in 2000, former pop-tart Britney Spears donned low-cut jeans and bared her midsection to the world. From then on, denims--the lower the better--were the clothing item of choice for fashion-conscious women. Premium brands like True Religion, 7 for All Mankind and Miss Sixty--some of which sold for nearly $200 a pair--developed a devoted, sometimes obsessive following. Young girls, especially those with washboard-flat tummies, embraced the look. Many of their mothers gamely followed suit. School administrators were not amused: low-rise jeans are banned from scores of high schools. Legislators in Louisiana and Virginia tried (and failed) to outlaw them. Doctors warned women not to wear them too tight--a Canadian medical journal reported that patients actually sustained nerve damage from wearing overconstricting hip-huggers. Despite all that, and resistance from folks like Mindy Stern, the jeans market, now a $14.6 billion industry, grew 14 percent from 2000 to 2005.

Why did the style endure so long? It's a mystery. Low-rise jeans aren't very comfortable, and it's tricky to find a pair that fits. "Even standing still in the dressing room, I had to keep hiking them up," says Bethany Stephan, 34, from Collinsville, Ill. Sure, they can look supersexy, but on the whole, low-rise jeans don't flatter many body types. "After having three kids, there is just no way I want to expose the battle zone that is my belly," says Heather Reynolds, 49, of North-port, N.Y., who tried but quickly rejected the style. Even well-toned women find that low-rise jeans can give them the dreaded muffin top--a roll of exposed belly fat--plumbers' butt and the dread Girl Love Handles. "We made fun of the guy who fixed our sink," says Reynolds. "But our kids were paying $150 to get his look."

Hollywood tastemakers, too, say the low-rise look has run its course. "These days, I can see as many cracks at a nightclub as I can on the paint of an old building," says celebrity-stylist Jeanne Yang. "It's tired." And manufacturers are ready for something new. In the last few months, the white-hot jeans market has begun to cool. By introducing styles like mom jeans that older, curvier women can wear, jeans makers are hoping to reignite sales. "Manufacturers know not everyone looks good in low-rises," says Marshal Cohen, retail analyst for the NPD Group. "They hope more-wearable styles will fuel continued growth." Women--especially those with ample bodies--are ready to buy that.