By Kristina Johnson Cathy Nolan Jacqueline Savaiano
April 21, 1986 12:00 PM

Peekaboo, the belly button’s back. In the quixotic world of fashion, the word is out that breasts, thighs, even derrieres, are temporarily passé. From the chichi showrooms of Seventh Avenue to suburban malls, the midriff is the season’s hot, new erogenous strip.

Last month Cher electrified the Oscar audience with a revealing—if a tad bonkers—stomach full of the new look. She went as a futuristic Indian princess with feathers and beads surrounding her navel. Bizarre as her getup was, Cher is not the only pioneer of the belly beautiful. Madonna has been sporting brassieres and cropped tops for the last four years. Then there’s Lisa Hartman, a girl who feels overdressed if her turn isn’t out there for folks to enjoy.

And now it’s apparently time for everybody to get into the act. Manhattan designer Cathy Hardwick has created scanty tops to be worn even at the office because she feels “women today are in much better shape, much more daring, more independent and less afraid. They are going with clothes that have the same feeling.” There are some stringent requirements for belly baring, however. California designer Christine Albers notes that “the look is for anyone who has a great body but especially for women who do a lot of stomach exercises.” Fashion commentator Richard Blackwell warns that “everyone’s belly button isn’t a carved cameo. Midriff items are fine on the beach or if you’re lying down because everything is in place. But don’t stand up.”

“Are we,” he worries, “only designing for one percent of the population?”

Maybe not. Bullock’s, the upscale West Coast department store, sold nearly 1,000 units last week in their Southern California stores alone, and, says the chain’s Lisa Engler, “We anticipate the demand will explode.” Lower down on the price range, The Broadway stores in California report healthy business since January and expect sales to take off when the weather warms. Donna Karan, Liz Claiborne, Annette and Danny Noble, among others, are busy scissoring off tops and dropping waistlines, and overseas the midsection is tops with such haute couture designers as Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent and Gérard Pipart. “The midriff is the most beautiful part of a woman,” Pipart proclaims flatly. “A beautiful midriff, the curve of waist and hips, is something magnificent,” Lacroix gushes. “So is the navel.” For those who wish to decorate their buttons, he suggests faux bijoux and real gems. The traditionally wrapped-up Japanese are also letting skin peek through now, and even royal belly buttons make public appearances when Monaco’s Princess Stephanie models swimwear.

One navel naysayer is French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who bellyaches that he was doing it ahead of the pack. “What’s new,” Gaultier says, “is the bare-tummy style for men. They have beautiful abdominal muscles. It’s sexy—unless the belly is full of beer.”

Maybe, but for now most men are happier contemplating the navel than showing it, and many women are happy to oblige. Size-two Pia Zadora, the mother of 1-year-old Kady, is ready. “Fortunately I didn’t get stretch marks because I greased myself all over,” Pia says. “I would almost slip out of bed at night, and my husband refused to sleep with me. But now I can show my belly if I want.” French actress Arielle (Lace) Dombasle is another enthusiastic convert. “Every true woman knows that to be attractive you have to show a little and hide a lot,” Arielle notes. “If you have a beautiful tummy, you can expect the rest to be beautiful too.” Of course, that can be a big “if.”