Fripperies for the modern woman. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Noelle Hoeppe

Only a few Christmasses ago, it would have been most unsisterly to have published pictures like these. Serious-minded women were supposed to wear serious-minded underwear - knickers that verged on unisex, and bras that were all support and no sex. "Lingerie" was reserved only for chi-chi French women, Ann Summers parties and Page Three. All any woman worth her boardroom seat wanted for Christmas was a six-pack of plain cotton briefs from M&S.

But there has been a distinct change in attitudes, thanks to discreet little lingerie boutiques like Agent Provocateur in Soho, where seamed stockings and pistachio-coloured bra- and-knicker sets in tulle are sold alongside bustiers made by the shop owner's mother, Vivienne Westwood. Agent's lace delicacies are saucy yet fashionable. Colour is key - parma violet, mint green, neon pink, canary yellow and wanton red all compete with the more commonplace shades of white, black and flesh.

These are elegant fripperies for the boudoir rather than the brothel, and word has spread fast among customers including Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen (when she's not wearing Playtex), Madonna and Nicole Kidman. The best-selling range is by Sybaris, a French label that specialises in racy combinations of colour, including lilac with black lace or red silk with purple.

Another independent lingerie shop, Boisvert, has recently expanded from a small shop in Covent Garden to larger Mayfair premises. The women who go to be fitted for bras by Chantal Thomass or La Perla might also shop at Joseph or Donna Karan. And the men - there is a 50-50 split between male and female customers - are local businessmen rather than the dirty mac brigade.

Even practical old Marks & Spencer has put a little lace and ribbon on its smalls, with high-cut knickers and push- up bras in navy, purple or red lace. But beware: there's still a very fine line between a little something to die for and a red basque you wouldn't be seen dead in.

Mint tulle bra, pounds 70, and matching suspender belt, pounds 25, both by Agent Provocateur, 6 Broadwick St, London W1 (0171-439 0229); chocolate satin knickers, pounds 45, by Aubade from Fenwicks, 63 New Bond St, London W1; Boisvert, 166 Grafton St, London W1 and department stores nationwide (01908 223003); contrast seam stockings, pounds 3.99, by Jonathan Aston, available from department stores nationwide (0116 286 2388); red and cream shoes, to order, by Manolo Blahnik for Antonio Berardi, available from Manolo Blahnik, 49 Old Church Street, London SW3 (0171-352 3863)

This page: yellow silk camisole, pounds 295, By Antonio Berardi, available from A La Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, London SW1 (0171-240 1955); burgundy silk cami-knickers with cream lace trim, pounds 152, by La Perla, available from Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1; Boisvert, 166 Grafton St, London W1 and selected stores nationwide (0171-436 5864); gold leopard mesh shoes, by Manolo Blahnik for Antonio Beradi, see previous page.

Opposite: flame silk camisole with black lace trim, pounds 65, By Janet Reger, 2 Beauchamp Place, London SW3; Boisvert, 166 Grafton Street, London W1 (0171-584 9360)

Bottom right: purple mini-slip with black lace trim, pounds 280, by Janet Reger, as before; red satin knickers, pounds 5.99, from Knickerbox, 467 Oxford St, London W1, and branches nationwide (0171-284 1744)

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