Good Life

Essential summer item: crisp, classy white pants

PHILADELPHIA _ No item is as quintessentially "summer" as white pants.

Of course, we also like to wear straw, seersucker, and sherbet shades in the hot months, but nothing makes these looks pop like a pair of cuffed, creased white trousers.

This summer, the clean yet notoriously hard-to-wear bottoms are even more important as key trends _ nautical navy blue and banana yellow, red and white polka dots, and bold Kelly green and black prints _ need to be matched with a smooth-fitting blank canvas.

The Ann Taylor chain has featured at least a half-dozen styles of white pants, ranging from slim-fitting to a tailored, wide-legged version. "The white pant is so versatile this season," explained Michael Smaldone, senior vice president of design for Ann Taylor. "You can pair them with a white jacket and have an entire suit thing happening. They are so much more of a staple than they used to be." Ann Taylor isn't the only outlet lauding the pants' versatility. Spiegel Brands is urging women to create their own signature style, showing women in white linen drawstring pants with matching button-down top accented with _ my favorite _ silver belts and shoes. Banana Republic went super-trendy with their white, pairing stovepipes with snug jackets (like an updated version of the white suit that Angelina Jolie wore to the 2001 Academy Awards.) J.Jill, Elie Tahari, Michael Kors, plus-size retailer The Avenue, and (naturally) White House Black Market promote the pants as a wardrobe addition for women of all ages and sizes. And then there are those who are a little more experimental, keeping white pants edgy with zippers, tassels and cargo pockets. Indeed, white is all the rage within the limited edition designer collections selling at trendy discount stores. H&M's Madonna collection has patent leather hot pants reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, while Target has white shorts from L.A.-based designer Patrick Robinson. And Gap kicks off its own design series this month with designs from runway designers Doo.Ri, Rodarte and Thakoon. The key to the collection is mod style: architecturally structured white shirts, skinny black pants, and white Bermuda shorts. Nothing, it seems, can be too crisp this summer. By now you may be wondering how those of us with hips can pull off the look, now that we're post-Memorial Day. After all, after skinny jeans and candy-apple-red dresses, white pants are among the hardest ensembles to wear. My number-one tip is to avoid white pants with elastic tops. Actually, elastic waistbands should be forbidden for all pants, but on white pants, they conjure up visions of schoolmarms and nurses _ NOT fashionable. And while a variety of pant lengths are in, I suggest that you stay away from the white cropped pants (unless they have a knicker bottom). That look screams old-fogey, too. Going up one size is another way to avoid the pitfalls of white pants, as I discovered last summer while buying a pair of tailored white pants at New York & Co. Clingy black pants are sexy, but cellulite isn't _ be careful yours can't be seen through ill-fitting white pants. Remember to wear nude underwear with white bottoms. White _ or worse, flowered prints _ is a no-no. Smaldone suggests that women nix the side pockets, as they make one look wide, a hazard that already exists with white pants. "Other than a flowered pair of panties showing through, a side pocket is one of the most unsightly fashion things," he said. Smaldrone does allow pockets as decoration, as long as they are low on the back or on the side. I'm partial to the sailor buttons that form a square along the tummy, but if your stomach bulges, you might want to rethink that option. Ultimately, fabric is the most important factor in a white-pants purchase. Heavier cottons with 3 or 4 percent lycra are most friendly to curves. And remember, white always looks better with a tan. But we suggest you spray it on, rather than bake it in.