Agent Provocateur, the raunchy design duo currently rifling through the staid drawers of M&S, have produced a history of lingerie which reveals rather more than a hint of stocking. Foreword by Rebecca Lowthorpe
Sexy? The British? Ha! We blush at the thought of fishnet stockings. Our toes curl at the prospect of suspenders. And we wince when presented with lacy G-strings on Valentine's Day. We're not a nation known for embracing our sexuality, let alone flaunting it by dressing it up in frilly fripperies. The closest most of us ever come to saucy undergarments is stealing a glance through the windows of Ann Summers.

We simply don't have the savoir faire of the French, who spend a fortune in their local specialist boutiques on silky slithers of fabric cleverly disguised as underwear. Instead, we head for the cheapest, safest place on the British high street - the stark, sanitised, bastion of unsexiness, Marks & Spencer, where we stock up on sensible reinforced gussets, bras with thick, adjustable straps, ribbed vests and chunky socks, chucking them into the shopping basket along with our ready meals and bags of spinach.

Or so it used to be. The British public's pulses are about to shoot up to danger level. Marks & Spencer is done with its staid image and has broken into the erotica market. Shock! You might like to sit down and take in the news that our favourite underwear-buying sanctuary is to offer a pink mesh balconette bra ... with little bows and ribbon straps! A transparent fuchsia bottom-grazing baby-doll nightie! This is the Salon Rose range, the result of a link- up between M&S and Joseph Corre and Serena Rees, the entrepreneurial couple behind the sexy London-based Agent Provocateur. And if you want to know what makes the duo tick, here we preview Corre and Rees's forthcoming book charting their unique work and what inspires them. Prepare to be aroused.

`Agent Provocateur: a Celebration of Femininity' by Joseph Corre and Serena Rees is published by Carlton Books, priced pounds 25. To order this book p&p free, call 0208 324 5555

Construction workers

The Victorians took the construction of underwear to new heights - and widths, judging by this picture of a young girl caught at the centre of a web-like crinoline. This dramatic invention became popular during the 18th century. The full version was for formal dress only; otherwise pocket hoops were worn, which extended either side of the waist. A large pad, usually made of cork, was attached to the rear to make the bottom stick out. At first these looks caused shock and scandal. Today (see right) the construction of lingerie, such as this Agent Provocateur ensemble, still exaggerates and flatters the body's natural shape, but the mechanics are rather less alarming.

All fur, no knickers

Betty Page was discovered on a beach when she was 27, started modelling as a pin-up and went on to become a popular bondage model. The Agent Provocateur team revere her for the way she captured the reality of feminine sexuality. Oh, and she also looked great in lingerie.

Riding high

The Thirties saw women using underwear to restore the curves that the Twenties flapper look had taken away from them. Fashion returned to femininity by accentuating breasts and hips, but where foundation garments had once been relied upon to achieve the ideal shape, now the body had to do much of the work.

Queen of hearts

This Agent Provocateur shoot (far right) heralded the launch of its mail-order catalogue, which was presented in the form of playing cards. They caused a storm in the national press and have since become collectors' items. Perfect for playing strip poker.

Swing out sister

Meet the phenomenal Dixie Evans, the "Marilyn Monroe" of burlesque. Dixie started working in burlesque theatre in the early Fifties and went on to become a famous stripper. Now in her sixties, she runs Exotic World, a museum in California opened by another stripper, the late Jenny Lee. Costumes were a key part of Dixie's performance: as well as exciting lingerie and "pasties" to cover the nipples, burlesque girls would often wear full-length beaded gowns, long gloves and a fur stole.

Window (un)dressing

In December 1994, Corre and Rees opened their first Agent Provocateur shop, at 6 Broadwick Street in London's Soho. It soon won a raunchy reputation: especially when supermodel Naomi Campbell did a striptease in the window. The windows have always been a cause of controversy - one phallic display nearly had the owners prosecuted. The store continues to have a dedicated following among women who just can't get enough of the imported frills and the luxurious own-label lingerie.