Some older women say they just don't feel finished without pantyhose. But for a newer generation, including Michelle Obama, polishing is in the accessories and the attitude toward sheer hose is "Why bother?"

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PHILADELPHIA — Pantyhose are the difference between dressing like a lady and not — or so my mother says.

Talk about disagreeing. In today’s fashion world, wearing flesh-colored hosiery is like choosing a girdle over Spanx — modern-day fashionistas would rather not.

The divide, which has become a hot style topic thanks to a recent Wall Street Journal article about pantyhose in the workplace and a “Good Morning America” segment, is definitely generational.

Some older women say they just don’t feel finished without them. That’s understandable. For that generation, wearing pantyhose was the difference between grown woman and little girl.

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“I feel uncomfortable if I’m dressed and I don’t have them on,” said Mary Carberry, 54, of Philadelphia. “My mother drilled into my head that ladies wear pantyhose and I have to do it. Sometimes I wear pantyhose under pants.”

GenXers have a different take. For them, the polishing is in the visible extras. We’d rather focus on envelope clutch bags, T-strap spectator pumps, or tucks in an airy, white, eyelet shirtdress. Does wearing pantyhose really matter if you have to squint to see them? They look terrible with open-toed shoes. What’s the point?

“Fishnets? Yes. Opaque? Yes. But never pantyhose,” said Jae Barnes, 38, who works at Bluemercury, a cosmetics boutique in Center City Philadelphia.

Opaque, these days, is synonymous with tights. Pantyhose refers to anything you can see through.

Banker Alex Cael summed it up best as she walked down the street in a particularly cute red skirt-suit wearing, to my surprise, pantyhose.

“Do you think I’d wear them on an 85-degree day by choice?” said the 23-year-old Wachovia employee.

The anti-pantyhose movement doesn’t mean our interest in hosiery has fallen to ankle-length proportions.

In fact, according to the NPD Group, a New York-based marketing and analysis company, annual hosiery sales have grown 7 percent over the past two years, from $6.1 billion to $6.5 billion.

Of that total, tights sales grew 65 percent from $258 million to $426 million in the same two years.

And while sales of sheer stockings rival those of tights, stockings sales fell 7.5 percent from $1.16 billion in 2007 to $1.07 billion in 2008.

“We used to stock sheer hose with all kinds of designs,” said Mona Lisa Jackson, owner of Coeur, a lingerie and undergarment boutique in Center City. “But nobody comes in asking for stockings anymore. Especially in the summer.”

Hosiery has been a key part of women’s wardrobes since the turn of the 20th century. Socks gave way to stockings attached to garter belts as long skirts started hitting mid-calf in the 1920s flapper era.

We didn’t have pantyhose until the 1960s, said Sally Kay, president and CEO of the Charlotte-based Hosiery Association. They became a necessity with the invention of the miniskirt and hot pants.

As women entered the workplace, pantyhose were more of a requirement than lipstick. They put the finishing touches on power suits — from Joan Collins’ ultra shoulder-padded ones in the “Dynasty” era to Calista Flockhart’s tiny “Ally McBeal” numbers.

Early this millennium, women stopped trying so hard to dress like men at work. Bare legs became the norm.

Now as we enter the third consecutive summer of the dress — with this year’s emphasis on Empire-waist fitted shifts — we still prefer our legs sans stockings. Even Michelle Obama — wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama — publicly decried pantyhose two weeks ago.

Still, fashion observers note — and the pantyhose industry hopes — that this fall will mark the beginning of a new era for flesh-toned legwear. Fall fashions, they say, focus on smooth, tailored, belted looks in serious navies and grays.

Alison Hessert, director of public relations at No Nonsense, predicts a jump in interest in sheer pantyhose in both flesh and colored tones based on their visibility on fall 2008 runways in Karl Lagerfeld and Miu Miu presentations.

Will women voluntarily choose restriction in the name of fashion? Only time will tell.

As it stands now, life without sheer hose is easier, trendier, hipper and definitely more fashion forward.

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