Madonna's bustier blazed the trail, Cher's garters set the tone, and now boudoir-inspired fashion is about to break out big with stockings that stop before the skirt begins. "When a woman walks into a restaurant in a black mini with black thigh-highs and an inch or so of skin showing," says streetwise designer Betsey Johnson, "it's Playboy on earth." And it's coming soon, to a store near you.

The trend began in Paris, where demoiselles have been setting off their short, pleated skirts with lace-top stay-up stockings or long socks called maxi chaussettes that end in a cunning little crumple just above the knee. Daring New Yorkers took the cue, pairing mid-thigh hosiery with tight, sky-high skirts to flash a dash of flesh. This season the variations are endless: Whether you layer dark mid-thighs over lighter tights or set them off with scrunched-down anklets, says one French manufacturer, thigh-highs offer "new ways of being leggy."

The stockings, which come in wool or varying blends of cotton, Lycra and nylon, are held up by spandex or ties—and courage. Fashion experts caution that they're not for everyone. "I hope we're talking about the very young customer buying thigh-highs," says designer Bob Mackie. "I'd hate to see an inch of flesh showing on anyone over 30."

So he would be heartened to hear that the vampy new socks are being put to more modest purposes by women who've discovered that such items are also comfortable and warm. French hosiery executive Marc Raguenau brought thigh-highs home for his teenage daughters only to see them disappear under long skirts, jeans and pants. "Over-the-knee socks were launched as a stylish accessory," Raguenau says, "but in the long run their future may be utilitarian."