A tight fix First the bad news: bare-leg season is officially over. Now the good news: tights just got interesting

Some people can tell it's autumn by the turning of the leaves, the chilling of the air or the shifting back of the clock. For women who prefer skirts and dresses, however, there are only two seasons and they are grimly told thus: tights, and no tights. The ritual putting away and bringing out of hosiery is a biannual activity that demarcates the year more certainly than any other. The former is a joyful harbinger of summer; the latter dooms us to months of vaccuum-packed legs and the daily misery of rummaging through all those gangly, stretched old sheaths, trying to avoid the worst of the ladders, faded ankles, saggy knees and disobliging crotches.

"I work quite hard not to wear them," says Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue, who makes bare-leggedness sound like a professional occupation. "One of the most depressing days of the year is when you put on a pair of black opaque tights."

But this year is different. This year tights are not just tights. They are a fashion story, and naysaying just won't do. At the catwalk shows for autumn/winter, they stalked the runway bejewelled, spotted, chequered, swirly, striped and "laddered" (Miu Miu, Balenciaga, Marni, Chanel, Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier respectively). In fact, so key are they for this season that Marc Jacobs even showed boots that try to pass themselves off as tights – super-skinny, patterned, with a black, shoe-like toe, and tall enough to prevent casual observers from seeing where they end even when worn with a miniskirt.

In a similar spirit, British designer Henry Holland has produced a range of tights for Pretty Polly (see bottom left) with trompe l'oeil stockings and knee-high socks drawn on. Look, they seem to be saying, we're not stockings, we're self-referential tights with a sense of humour! The packets show models in joyful 60s-style poses – knock-kneed in clumpy platforms, legs bent ready to jump. These are the action shots of the tights world, "outgoing and exciting", Holland says, and the allusion to the 60s is not accidental.

For if years of complacency have taught us to see tights as restrictive, depressingly heralding winter, this was not always the case. Back in the early 60s when tights began to edge out stockings, they promised liberation. "Absolutely!" says Mary Quant, who thinks she was the first in London to stock them and speaks as enthusiastically of tights now as perhaps she did when she first persuaded one Mr Curry of the Nylon Hosiery Company on Oxford Street that it would be worth his while to acquire the machinery from theatrical manufacturers to make them in large numbers. "They just didn't exist, you see. I so wanted tights. I think they're wonderfully comfortable. They are warm and comforting and not at all inhibiting and," she pauses, "they're so bendy! And flattering. Gosh, they're flattering!"

Quant soon convinced JC Penney, with its 1,765 stores in the US, that it should stock tights too, and after that "I could do no wrong in their eyes," such were the sales figures. Shulman thinks that a similar economic revolution in hosiery may be happening now. "Tights," she says, "are a new area to do something with. If [a design house] can produce their own tights it's another area of business." Thus a pair by Alexander McQueen will set you back £59. It's £79 for a pair at Marni, £180 for gold-coloured hose at Chanel and about $1,400 (£860) for those Marc Jacobs tights-alikes. "Historically, legwear was always an afterthought," says operations director Matthew Drinkwater of the Japanese legwear specialist Tabio. "Now you see people building their outfits around it."

Indeed. And with skirts staying short for autumn, shorts staying put and cuissardes (a word we're all going to learn over the next few months: that's thigh-high boots) proliferating, all eyes are on the legs.

There are three ways to go with this. You can pretend it isn't happening and stick with black opaques, as favoured by everyone from Kate Moss to Karren Brady. Shulman swears by Wolford's Velvet De Luxe black opaques and bulk buys at the start of each winter, as does Alice Rawsthorn, design critic of the International Herald Tribune (that counts as heavy backing). You can get the same look, though perhaps not the same longevity, at John Lewis, which does a much better, truer black than Marks & Spencer for the same price, and in enough different sizes to ensure a reasonable fit. Avoid Topshop – its tights come in only one size. The second is to tackle the problem head on and decide that, since tights are where it's at this season, this is the year to enjoy them. Any departure from black or grey would count as adventurous in the office, and the right pair of strident tights can turn a dull dress into a great outfit.

Last, you could work your tights aggression out of your system in the way Kate Moss has in the advertisements for her new Topshop collection, or Scarlett Johansson in her campaign for Mango – by wearing them laddered. If you can't love your tights, then turn on them. At least this way, snags won't be a problem.