Baby doll, bikini, bloomer, busk, bustle, chemise, corset, drawers, pannier, panties, suspenders, waspie... Chanting the names given to women's underwear makes for a saucy litany.

We would be fooling ourselves if we pretended we wear underwear purely for practical reasons. In the long history of women's most intimate clothes, modesty and practicality have rarely been the reason for the evolution of garments that have kept the female form uplifted or suppressed, slender or voluptuous, curvy or linear.

Underwear is the clothing that is most rife with contradictions. If it is really about practicality, then how come in that most practical of modern cities, New York, it is not unusual for smart women to admit to not wearing any knickers? Madonna long ago proved that underwear doesn't necessarily stay under, but she was not the first woman in history to show off her "smalls".

Ah, there's another conundrum, for smalls are not necessarily small. Big knickers, serious bras, panty girdles have, for some years now, been back in fashion. And big women, like thin women, wear underwear, but away from the territory of the pornographer, where woman is an object, there are rather few images of comely, buxom women in their most private attire. This was a fact much lamented by Cecil Saint Laurent in The Great Book of Lingerie (Academy Editions, 1986). His account makes no pretence to be about support and modesty and is instead an erotic evocation of the sexiest slithers of garments in the cavalcade of dress. Saint Laurent is no known relation to Yves, an early apologist for the bra-less see- thru shirt look which is quite at odds with Cecil's adoration of the brassiere. Cecil is fascinated by the eroticism of lace and lingerie, corset strings and stocking tops. "Censorship has hindered the development of photography of feminine underwear. That is the reason why there are so few pictures or drawings in women's magazines of the panties worn from the 19th century until the Twenties," he complains.

Today, despite the plethora of glossy magazines featuring women in clothes, there are still suprisingly few images of women in underwear, apart from those created by those big advertisers, the lingerie giants.The fashion editor's habitual solution to the once-yearly bra and knicker shoot (done to keep the giants happy) is to show a few little bras, a few whispy knickers on young, lithe bodies. Yet much of the most sultry and sexy underwear is intended, bought, or bought for women with flesh on their bones, not to mention the bones in their bras.

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