Sex on legs? Not necessarily. This season's hot footwear trend comes in shapes and guises from suede to flat to embroidered to biker. Anything, in fact, but black PVC

A mere moment's Googling the words "thigh-high boots" provides all the proof you need of the strange power that they have over the modern psyche: "Victoria Beckham is sexy in thigh- highs" while Halle Berry "dazzles". Rihanna is "rocking" hers, but a tabloid correspondent speaks of "proposals from men and sneers from women" after she spent a day wearing some.

The reason for the fevered interest is that thigh-highs are having a moment in the style spotlight, but no fashion hack could possibly pretend they're not completely aware of the reasons behind the allure of thigh-highs. Men like them because they make women look like cartoon prostitutes, and women like them because they make them feel like cartoon superheroes. A more perfect or explicit representation of Mars and Venus would be hard to find.

Of course, designers had their own interpretations of such archetypes for autumn/winter – a season which is full of over-the-knee, thigh- and crotch-high boots. Miuccia Prada, true to form, took sexy and turned it on its head, sending her models down the catwalk in thigh-high waders attached to waist belts with suspender-style buckled straps. Stella McCartney's, on the other hand, were more obviously dominatrix – needle-heeled leg coverings worn with blazers and silk shirt-dresses – a garment in their own right, replacing the need for trousers or tights.

Even the charming Peter Jensen showed longer-length white boots (white boots! Didn't your mother tell you never to wear white boots?), embroidered with a floral motif and inspired by the traditional Greenlandic kamiks. At Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs played with the various associations of the provocative boots and made them comically hyperbolic, by turning them out in brocade, or with laced fronts, each atop a tapered heel, some adorned with pearls. Jacobs, though, was ultimately pragmatic in his assertion that we'd all be wearing thigh-highs come deepest winter, and showed a pair that unzipped into a practical triptych: from ankle boots, to knee boots and with a final extra panel that took them all the way up to, well, the nether reaches of any average-size woman.

The thigh-high tradition is an old one. They were popular in the 17th century with men who rode on horseback. Porthos, Athos and Aramis probably each had a pair. In the 1960s, Diana Rigg cavorted in a pair for The Avengers, and Pierre Cardin created gold and silver versions, without the then-ubiquitous stiletto heel and distinctly android in aesthetic.

Back up to speed, though, and one of the earliest public outings this season – and the beginning of the tabloid uproar – was when Madonna appeared at the Met Gala in May wearing a head-to-toe Vuitton look from the autumn collection. Some chose to ridicule her for the "bunny-ear" headpiece she wore, others to remark on the suitability of a skirt "that short" on a woman "that age". The obvious targets for comment, however, were the black thigh-highs she chose as accessories. From the author of a book titled Sex, surely they were no great surprise.

But the interesting thing about this season's thigh-highs is that they are not straightforwardly sexy. The point of these boots is not to look like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Rather, they're an extension of the sleek, skinny lines shown last autumn by the likes of Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, Antonio Berardi and Olivier Theyskens at Nina Ricci; it's part of the slim-fit, chic goth look as purveyed by Rick Owens and, latterly, Gareth Pugh.

Trousers have got so tight that there's little for it but to attach them to our feet. Martin Margiela's integrated shoe-tights are a more extreme version of this, as are Nicolas Ghesquière's for Balenciaga. They're less sexy and more ergonomic – which is something Woman's Hour singularly failed to note when Debbie Turley, a thigh-high enthusiast, went on to the programme to discuss the trend recently. They make her feel a "sexual proudness", she told a bemused Jenni Murray. "I'd wear them to a club, maybe with a rubber catsuit or something quite raunchy." Turley owns six pairs, ranging from black PVC to red PVC to black PVC with a pink lining.

Debbie, where to start? Her fetishistic collection is so absolutely contrary to the versions that are currently en vogue and in Vogue. Most of this season's versions are more social worker than sex worker: take Russell & Bromley's black-leather pair, totally flat-soled and bagged out at the top, so easily worn over jeans. Topshop, too, has several takes, from pointy stilettos to clumpy, buckled biker styles. Jil Sander and Balenciaga have both produced practical, flat, suede versions, and specialist brand Duo (which stocks 21 different calf sizes) has also got in on the act. Wear them over leggings and under dresses; team with an over-sized upper half, or an out-sized jacket.

As long as you're not entirely clad in Lycra or standing on a kerb without a coat, no one will bat an eyelid. And those who do are probably just wondering if they dare have a go.