Men buying underwear for women. What a business. Mostly they are either painfully embarrassed or painfully wrong. How do you do better? Allow our Ms Blanchard to assist you. Photographs by Sheridan Morley.

"You feel like such a pervert." That seems to be the consensus of the men I talked to on the subject of buying underwear for the women in their life. Men, it seems, have only just come to terms with the buying of their own underwear, so it is hardly surprising that they feel as though the entire queue at M&S is staring at them as they clutch their lacy bra and knicker set, blushing the closer they get to the counter. They might as well be wearing the damn things, they are so embarrassed. "The whole act of buying women's underwear is thoroughly unpleasant," adds one hapless underwear shopper. "People always think you are buying it for yourself."

One of the main problems for men in search of a little bit of naughty luxury is that they cannot trust their own judgment. About anything. When it comes to cup sizes, colour or style of knicker, they are clueless. Tangas, G-strings or hip huggers, they're all the same to most men. And the mere mention of the word "gusset" brings them out in a cold sweat. "What size is the lady?" asks the assistant. "Oh, about your size," the guy replies, without more than a second glance or indeed a pause to compare the size of his elephantine partner with this waifish young woman who is ringing up "A" cups and size small smalls as he speaks.

A few years ago, there was little room between the plain and practical (Jockey, Hanro or Calvin Klein) and the tawdry and tacky (Ann Summers). These days, however, the lingerie market has boomed. Little boutiques specialising in luxurious lace confections are springing up from Mayfair to Covent Garden.

Agent Provocateur, the label set up by Joe Corre and Serena Rees three years ago selling saucy underwear and fluffy slippers, has spread its wings and expanded from sleazy Soho to upmarket Knightsbridge. Then there are labels like the French brand Huit, specialising in underwear that is feminine and pretty without going over the top with ribbons, bows and ruffles. These are scants that are practical as well as pleasing to the eye, a balance that is surprisingly difficult to achieve. Shapes are sporty with halter-neck bras, detachable straps and seamless bras, but in powder puff blue, mint green or bright yellow.

Another practical option - and part of any model's kit of essentials - is nude underwear. All the major underwear companies make lingerie that looks invisible and has as few seams and lines as possible. Men hate them. They say they look like surgical appliances. Perhaps they do, but they are the closest thing to wearing nothing under your clothes, but with all the support of more heavy-duty underwear.

When women buy underwear for their girlfriends, either platonic or otherwise, they usually opt for something plain, simple and cotton. Men could take note and save themselves a lot of embarrassment. No frills, no fuss, just a sporty bra or a pair of knickers that have a wide elastic waistband, or a comfortable look, usually in black, white or grey, and veering towards the masculine side of underwear.

Muji make good quality, minimal camisoles and knickers that have no frills whatsoever but are less brutal than a pair of Jockeys. And you really won't feel like a pervert waiting in the queue.

1 Underwire pistachio lace bra, pounds 31, and lace knickers, pounds 25, by Huit, available from Bentalls, Kingston on Thames, and branches nationwide. Stockist enquiries: 0171-631 3157

2 White pack-of-three camisoles, pounds 12; pack-of-three high-cut knickers, pounds 9, all by Muji, 27 Oxford Street, London W1 and branches nationwide. Stockist enquiries: 0171-323 2208

3 Nude underwire bra, pounds 16.00; high-leg knickers, pounds 9.00, all by Warner. Available from Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1, Dickins and Jones, Regent Street, London W1, other House of Fraser stores and major department stores. Stockist enquiries: 0115 979 5796

4 Black firework underwire bra, pounds 50; firework brief, pounds 25; and firework suspender, pounds 30, all by Agent Provocateur, 6 Broadwick Street, London W1 and 16 Pont Street, London SW1. Mail-order: 01483 204469; stockist enquiries: 0171-439 0229

Stylist: Charlie Harrington

Hair and Make-up: Alex Babsky at Mandy Coakley

Model: Natasha Elms at Select

how to linger among the lingerie and get it right

1. Before even stepping into a lingerie department or specialised store, become a Peeping Tom. Take a look into your loved one's underwear drawer, find her favourite bra and check the size. Then look at the knickers and do the same.

2. While practising the Peeping Tom routine, it's worth checking the preferred colours, shapes and styles. Ask yourself: is it underwired or not? Are there G-strings, or hip-huggers? Control panels? Lace? Cotton? Black, white, red pistachio or cream?

3. Armed with this knowledge, decide what style of underwear to go for. Remember, it's got to be special, so basic cotton briefs, (unless they are by Hanro) are not advisable. Think about what will make her feel sexy, not what you think is sexy. The two may be very different. Sexy is black lace high-leg knickers and a matching bra which creates or enhances the cleavage. It's not teeny weeny wisps of chiffon, with no support and little comfort.

4. Take a female friend with an impartial attitude shopping - not your secretary or mother.

5. The final option is the easy way out, but it will also go down a treat. Luxury lingerie store Rigby & Peller offer gift vouchers, at denominations of pounds 25, pounds 50, pounds 75 and pounds 100. The recipient can visit the store at any time, have a specialised bra fitting and buy the underwear of her choice. It's all gorgeous, and a correctly fitted bra does wonders for the bust line. A good bra costs about pounds 75, a made-to-measure bra costs from pounds 200.