An empire waist is a tricky look to pull off.

Yet periodically, designers reach back to the classically inspired fashion, moving up waistlines to right below the bosom.

This spring, among the cuffed trousers, gauchos and full skirts, the empire waist is emerging as the strongest silhouette for fashion followers.

Expect to see the high waist appear on loose and flowing – sometimes almost angelic – frocks in eyelet and lacy chiffon, as well as on cotton shirts and matte jersey dresses.

If the style sometimes seems old-fashioned, that’s because it is. Empire waists first became fashionable in France during the early 19th century, influenced by Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon.

"She wore very lovely, simple dresses in which the natural contours of the waistline moved up," explains Sigrid Weltge, professor emerita of fashion at Philadelphia University.

"This is the first time we saw women out of corsets. Their bodies relaxed. The look was beautiful, soft ... innocent."

In the late 1960s, English designer and boutique owner Mary Quant popularized the empire waist again. But this time, the dress took a sexy spin as a mini. Icons such as actresses Marlo Thomas and Goldie Hawn paired the above-the-knee frocks with opaque tights and go-go boots.

The ‘90s brought the empire in long-sleeve jumpsuits with wide legs and grunge babydoll dresses. Recently, the glamorous high-waisted maternity frocks shown off on the red carpet by pregnant celebs such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Gwen Stefani have been coveted even by those who are not expecting.

And that can be the challenge of an empire waist: The billowing fabric can give one the appearance of being pregnant, even if slim.

Luckily, the new empire pieces will be much more tailored. Empire tops will remind us of shirtwaists, and many designers, such as Tracy Reese, are pairing empire shifts with fitted jackets.

© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.