Lederhosen Chic: From the Alps to the Catwalk

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Courtesy of Zara

Cuffed leather shorts from Zara's spring/summer 2010 collection

Traditionally worn by Bavarian boys and yodelers, lederhosen don't exactly scream high fashion. But lose the front flaps, unclip the suspenders, give them a modern cut and slap them on an aloof model, and suddenly you've got this season's hottest fashion trend: leather shorts.

Contemporary iterations of lederhosen — that's German for leather trousers — began appearing on European runways last season, with Chloé and Emilio Pucci leading the charge. This season, a number of major labels have jumped on the bandwagon. American designer Derek Lam is offering buttery-soft leather shorts with front inverted pleats for $1,490. And Chanel, whose creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, hails from Hamburg, has dreamed up voluminous black shorts with a high-rise waist for $1,950.

So far sales have been brisk on both sides of the Atlantic. Zara, the Spanish retailer that offers runway-inspired looks at Main Street prices, says its light cognac-colored shorts ($99.99) have sold out in continental Europe, though a few dozen pairs remain on the shelves of its British retail stores. Net-a-porter, the online luxury retailer, has seen "great response" to Helmut Lang's cracked-leather, paneled shorts ($700) and Thakoon's leather, denim-effect day shorts ($1,330).

On some level, women must value these shorts as a novelty. Does anyone actually need a sexy take on the Alpine Boy Scout uniform? Probably not. But fashion insiders believe the shorts transcend their roots and offer unmatched versatility for the summer. "Most fashionistas think that the leather shorts descend from the spring 2010 runways, not from the von Trapp family wardrobe," says Claire Sulmers, a Paris-based fashion writer and editor in chief of The Fashion Bomb, an influential blog that targets women of color. "They're the first shorts you can legitimately wear to work. Wear them with a blazer and stiletto sandals for a smart business-casual look." Of course, there's a reason that leather isn't usually a warm-weather staple. To avoid potentially clammy situations, Sulmers advises women to pair the shorts with stockings in the spring and "boy-cut underwear" during the summer.

As so often happens with the next big thing, celebrities have driven the trend. Teen idol Miley Cyrus has taken to wearing leather shorts onstage, as she did at a December 2009 performance for Queen Elizabeth II in Blackpool, England. In January, Rihanna appeared on the cover of GQ magazine wearing only a tiny pair of Balmain leather shorts. And in March, Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue strutted through Paris Fashion Week wearing YSL's high-waisted number. U.K. InStyle said she "looked fab," while London's Metro newspaper dismissed her as "raunchy."

And that's the risk of wearing these refined hot pants: some women come off as edgy, others as out of order. Comments posted on fashion forums and message boards convey the passion of the anti-lederhosen set. One man wrote that they're only appropriate "in an Amsterdam dungeon cellar bar." Others don't think they work beyond Bavaria. "Leather shorts are un-British," another man wrote online. "Leave that to the Germans."

Style watchers agree that not every woman looks good in a pair of leather shorts. Claus Blume, the Munich-based founder and curator of the Virtual Lederhosen Museum, says that "very tall and a little androgynous ladies" carry the look better than women who project a more traditional beauty. Which might explain why more and more men are slipping on a pair. Blume, an avid collector of antique lederhosen, says the shorts have surged in popularity among Germany's gay community in the past two years. "For men, lederhosen are clothing with much more attitude than for women," he says. "They are masculine and embellishing at the same time." The von Trapps would have been so proud.

With reporting by Tara Kelly