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Over-the-knee boots riding a high in popularity

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Who can forget those black, vinyl thigh-high boots Julia Roberts wore — with little else — when she first spied her man in "Pretty Woman"? Twenty years later, tall boots are back, this time on ladies of fashion, not just ladies of the night.

Thigh-high boots rocked the runways a year ago, but it's taken some time for the trend to evolve and gain acceptance by a broader audience. Now, over-the-knee styles are adding a sexy-yet-chic statement to skinny jeans and leggings, skirts and dresses.

"Every girl wants to be a little sexy," says footwear designer Stuart Weitzman. "Do you know an American woman who hasn't seen 'Pretty Woman'?"

Weitzman, who has made tall boots in past seasons, says over-the-knee boots are so popular now because women wear tights with many looks — even miniskirts and shorts. "They complement the new kind of dress that many, many girls are using today. It sort of breaks up the whole naked leg look and becomes an acceptable adaptation of modern dressing."

Options are plentiful: Choose a dramatic pair with a high heel, a mid-height wedge or a flat-bottomed boot. They come plain or embellished with chains, buckles and studs, and with details like distressing and lacing. Depending on the style, they can add glamour to an evening ensemble or keep you warm running errands by day.

"They're sexy and fun and everyone can wear them in their own way," says Brian Atwood, just named Footwear News' designer of the year. He offers a mid-thigh platform boot with a 5 1/2-inch heel and also a flat shearling style. "Definitely don't be afraid of the over-the-knee boot."

The beauty of the style, he says, is that it lengthens your appearance, regardless of your height. "Trust me," he says. "It's like wearing a legging. It elongates everything."

Still, the public's collective eye needed to adjust to a style that perhaps spurred thoughts of fetishism.

The success of the high-end designer collections led retailers to realize the everyday shopper was ready for the look this year, said Avril Graham, executive fashion and beauty editor of Harper's Bazaar.

"It had been seen as a very high-fashion look and super trendy," she says. "Now, it's so much more accessible. I've been traveling across the states in the last few months and I've been noticing so many more regular women are wearing this look."

Graham advises wearing the boots with a "minimalist chic" look. Don't pair the boots with every other trend or pile on too many accessories, she cautions, and keep hemlines higher than the top of the boots.

"The look has to be a linear, long, clean silhouette," Graham says. "The whole object of this look is to keep your entire look very simple and chic."

That means close-fitting jeans or cigarette pants tucked into the boots, no flared pants or skirts and nothing flouncy. "You want to avoid having any resemblance to anything theatrical and the appearance of anything remotely looking like 'Pirates of the Caribbean,'" according to Graham.

There's more variety than you might think in boot style, shaft and overall vibe, and that lets the trend live longer.

Weitzman, whose best-selling item is an over-the-knee boot called 5050, says 10 to 15 percent of boots for his pre-fall 2011 collection will reach over the knee. Atwood is reissuing the limited-edition RZ boot, a collaboration with celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe that sold out. "These boots are here to stay I think," Atwood said of the tall style. "You have to have fun with them."

The growing popularity of over-the-knee boots surprised online retailer Piperlime, which says women of all ages and heights are booting up, making them a top seller. "We did think it was going to be a smaller trend," says Brooke Banwart, divisional merchandise manager for shoes and accessories. "It's gone mass."

Popularity has only surged alongside the jeggings craze in fashion, and Banwart notes manufacturers are offering the boots in many colors, and heels range from flats to wedges. (Women worried they're too short for the tall boots should try a wedge, she suggests.)

Tall boots, which started out as a men's style in the 17th century with the cavalier look of "The Three Musketeers," were adopted by women in the 20th century, when hemlines began to rise, says Beth Dincuff, a fashion historian and faculty member at Parsons The New School for Design. The boots adorned space-age looks in the 1960s, hippie clothes in the '70s and New Romantics outfits in the '80s, she says.

They have a strong connection to the music world, sheathing the legs of megastars — and fashion influencers — Lady Gaga, Madonna, Rihanna and Prince. In June, trendsetter Victoria Beckham wore a short dress with Atwood's towering black suede RZ boots, which have a chain up the back and 5-plus-inch heels.

The boots' return to style comes during a time of change in fashion, Dincuff observes.

"On the street, I think we're in a very hyper-sexualized way of dressing right now," she says, attributing fashion influences not necessarily to designers but to pop culture. "What we find acceptable has changed."