This winter's crush on velvet - think sumptuous shrunken blazers, soft leggings, and floor-length gowns - is more than just a cure for the cold. The popularity of the plush pile is a sign that luxury is on the cusp of a comeback.

And the ancient fabric's timing couldn't be better. Just like sequins, satin, and fur, nothing says holiday like a velvet dress. This year, however, the smooth-move textile is enjoying a modern twist.

"I started seeing people come in October looking for velvet," said Mary K. Dougherty, who this season stocked three styles of velvet Nicole Miller cocktail dresses in her Manayunk and Center City boutiques. All but a few have sold.

"Customers wanted something to feel special in. For so long now, they've been hiding their wealth; but velvet is a fabric that can be opulent regardless of whether it's Nicole Miller or H&M."

Velvet is even getting a style stamp of approval from Hollywood. In early November, Harry Potter star Emma Watson was lauded for the one-shoulder, over-the-knee frock she wore to the Deathly Hallows premiere. And last week, Angelina Jolie showed up on the red carpet of Brad Pitt's Megamind Paris premiere in a velvet pantsuit.

In addition to Nicole Miller, whose frocks include a stunning chocolate drop-waist dress with a cowl neck, runway favorites Dolce & Gabbana, Zac Posen, Ralph Lauren, and Donna Karan all featured velvet in their fall 2010 collections.

Among the Fashion Week showstoppers: Donna Karan's cobalt blue three-quarter-length velvet coat and Nanette Lepore's unforgettable floor-length velvet gowns in ruby, copper, mustard, and olive green tones. Betsey Johnson mixed velvet into her satin minis.

Macy's and J. Crew are featuring velvet blazers for women, while Kenneth Cole is the go-to place for your guy's soft formal jacket. At Bloomingdale's, cocktail dresses by L.K. Bennett are trimmed in velvet, and Theory has velvet suits. (Wait until tuxedo-loving pop sensation Janelle Monáe gets ahold of these.)

Even Juicy Couture is in on the popular plushness. The sportswear label is selling a gown that's velvet's short-pile cousin - velveteen. (Makes no difference to us, just so that it says touch me.)

"The winter is always kind of velvety," said Ashlyn Delson, marketing director at Willow Grove Park Mall. "But there is so much more velvet this year. It's a big trend especially in the pinks, purples, and royal blues. It's so fresh."

Most people associate velvet with luxury, and there's a reason.

Although historians aren't sure if the silk weave originated in China or Pakistan, many agree it was carried along trade routes in the Middle Ages to Italy and France. Upon its arrival, it became the fabric of choice - for cloaks, gowns, and ornate suiting - among royalty and the Vatican, according to Elizabeth Ives, Philadelphia University professor of fashion and textile history.

The fabric remained popular during the Renaissance as royal families incorporated velvet into their family crests, and velvet brocade became the preferred backdrop for commissioned artwork.

Renaissance fashion - and therefore velvet - enjoyed a resurgence in the 1820s and 1830s, with women wearing corseted dresses with lace collars, said Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel University's historic costume collection. A century on, the Roaring Twenties ushered in another velvet vibe, Sauro said, but it didn't become a mainstay until the 1950s, when velvet could be made from fabrics other than silk, making it less expensive.

"That is when it became a perennial Christmas fabric," Ives said. "At that time, formality was very important to showing status, and people wanted to keep up appearances. And that meant dressing your kids up at Christmas time."

And who wasn't forced to don a puffed-sleeve velvet number come December? Even through the '90s, if you were wearing the sumptuous fabric, it had to mean tinsel time. But with velvet's latest appearance, it's for anytime, no holds barred.

"When you think about it, velvet's return to fashion isn't veering too far from its history," Sauro said. "Every time we enter a time of romance or hope or when there is a shift in the economy, we see velvet come back. We are hopeful now, so it makes sense."

So how to wear it and not look like Santa's lost elf?

Most important, keep the velvet minimal - no more than one full-on velvet piece per outfit. Let your velvet dress - mini or maxi - be the focal point, but wear opaque tights of the same hue for an of-the-moment monochromatic look. Grab a sparkling clutch, and you'll turn heads at your holiday party.

Next, don't be afraid to mix textures. A velvet blouse looks great with dark denim skinny jeans and a cardigan. Velvet blazers are chic with flat-front wool pin-striped pants. Feeling extra festive? Look for satin trim. Shiny blouses with velvet floral appliqués are deliciously stylish.

Finally, while velvet leggings are cute, they are not for the fashion novice. (For instance, do not pair them with an oversize sweater. Yuck.) For a safe bet, go with a starched white tuxedo shirt with a cardigan or tailored jacket. Finish the look with suede over-the-knee boots.