Sweaters have long occupied a lowly step on the sartorial ladder, a poor stepsister to the almighty jacket.

Carelessly tossed over shoulders, they were an afterthought – good for comfort and not much more.

Suit jackets got credit for adding polish to the office. Suede jackets gave coffee shops their funkiness. And evening silk jackets brought elegance to soirees.

But pity the sweater no more.

A new era has dawned for those pliable body huggers. Designers have created fabulous fall/winter sweaters for all looks, be it work, play or even glam.

Sweaters are the new jackets. Here’s how to do justice to their suddenly lofty status.

For the office: If you choose the most nondescript sweater you can find, you will look like you forgot your jacket and got cold.

Make your sweater the centerpiece of your outfit. Get one with conservative pizazz. There are sweaters out there with collars lined with fur, faux or real. Others have toggle clasps or gold buttons.

Next consider the structure. You might look for a sweater that’s tapered at the waist or closes with a tie or belt. Some have sharply defined shoulders that give them a formal edge.

Go for a handbag with a rigid frame, rather than a mushy one. And add strong jewelry, like big pearls or a long necklace.

Going chic:

A long sweater over a fitted shirt and jeans tucked into tall boots is the height of hipness.

If you’re up for the look, add a baggy handbag, let down the hair and pile on the jewelry.

If you haven’t invested in boots and don’t like to wear jeans, you can still don a long sweater and do the trendy thing. But make sure something about you spells h-i-p, either with things like layered necklaces or an interesting purse, or you might just look like you haven’t cleaned out your closet in years.

Putting on the ritz:

Put down the wrap. Pick up the sweater.

Yes, the sweater. No, that was not a misprint.

You can be an absolute fashion standout in a haute gown swaddled in a sweater – provided it’s the right gown and the right sweater.

You’ll need a dress whose bottom half is so striking, it makes a statement all its own. Then you’ll need a sweater endowed with something glitzy, such as beads, spangles or crystals on the tie or collar, or metallic threads woven through the body.

"If you want to vogue it, don’t put a black sweater over a black dress," advises stylist Lisa Cera, with Agency Gerard. "Choose another color, like a neutral."

© 2005, The Miami Herald.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.