Underwear as outerwear, that old chestnut. We all know the checklist: Gaultier's conical bras worn by Madonna; Westwood's corsets that became a clubber's standard, but were never seen out in daylight; Dolce e Gabbana's bras and basques that caused a catwalk sensation, but then what happened to them?

How many people do you know who have actually worn their scanties so they show? Well, quite a few, actually, when I count up. It is now perfectly acceptable to wear a sheer top with your best bra showing underneath. No one bats an eye at the sight of what used to be called, coyly, one's smalls.

In fact, they are not all that small. The underwear here covers more flesh than this summer's ubiquitous slip dress. Take the little corset top, worn over a demure nightie. This hints at the boudoirs of 19th-century Paris, but with a clever update. Back then, women had maids to fiddle with endless tiny hooks and eyes, ties, bows and buttons. These days, the hooks and studs are for decoration only - there is a neatly concealed zip at the back.

If a corset is not your style, the nightie underneath is comfortable and wearable on its own. Versions have filtered into the high street and the look promises to be a strong shape right into next winter, with thermal pantaloons optional.

John Galliano's fine camisole tops are as delightful as the antique versions they imitate. For once the pounds 165 price-tag seems justified, for these are made with all the intense workmanship and detail of a past age. It is possible to buy originals more cheaply, but only if you are tiny. At the Gallery of Antique Costume and Textiles, in Marylebone, west London, similarly delicate real Victorian lace camisoles sell for pounds 25 to pounds 60 - but as they were designed to be worn with corsets, they are often extremely small around the ribcage.

At Annie's Antique Clothes in Islington, north London, lacy Edwardian and late Victorian camisoles (small) and nighties (sometimes ample) sell quickly, but it is worth persevering because prices hover around pounds 28.

The evidence that underwear-as-outerwear is more than just a high fashion trend lies with underwear's patron saint, St Michael of Marks & Spencer. The store group is not going into corsets a la Vivienne Westwood, but selected pieces from the vast underwear range are being sold with the implicit message that these are meant to be seen. Packaging features bra tops worn under open shirts. But although women who buy Wonderbras and rival Ultrabras aren't doing so for nobody to see them, this isn't quite the same story as the Wear-to-be-Seen pieces you see here.

The romantic look - these are soft and floppy, certainly not so pointy and angular that they look as if they could take someone's eye out - has nothing to do with a cleavage that has a speech bubble spouting 'Hello Boys]' Nor is it about sporty Y-fronts that scream Chanel or Calvin Klein. The news on that trend? It's over. The way to wear your Calvins this summer is under the waistband of your jeans, not showing by several inches above.

But when it comes to a glimpse of layers of lace, it's a different story; one with romantic sensuality, plus a helping of nostalgia. Nothing is more alluring than clothes that might have started life in the knicker drawers of our great- grandmothers; clothes that are not overtly sexy or revealing. And when underwear-as-outerwear goes out of fashion, you can wear these under your clothes again, next to your skin.

(Photograph omitted)