To achieve that hour-glass silhouette, you'd better spend some time choosing structured underwear that will help to smooth those hips and nip those waists, advise Charlie Harrington and Marion Hume
It's amazing what comes around if you wait long enough. Only yesterday, a colleague - who is just old enough to remember how "free" the "No Bra Bra" first felt after the constricting underwear that preceded it - asked us whether it was really true that structured underwear was making a return.

"But why?" she moaned on learning it was. "It was awful! The worst was when one of your stays burst through and wore your skin raw!"

The pat response would be: "But things have changed." And it is true. The new structured underwear does not have stays that ping and nasty protuberances that rub frail flesh. The new structured underwear lifts, pulls in and supports by way of hi-tech elastane fibres.

However, the current trend is not just about new underwear. Vintage underwear, such as that purveyed by Agent Provocateur, is being snapped up by those too young to know the fierce snap of a stay breaking free.

After seasons of androgynous-looking underwear, inspired by flat-chested waifs, supportive underwear is back. It appeals to a new generation until now unfamiliar with body contouring, and to those who have found that barely-there underwear does barely a thing for the female form, unless it is of the skinny, no-curves variety.

Girdles, pointy bras and serious big knickers are replacing briefs, tangas and singlets as the underwear of fashion. The Wonderbra has paved the way. Even those who do not want their breasts moulded into two huge, high orbs with barely the space to slip a credit card between are starting to think of more structured underwear once more. And some men are reportedly rather pleased. "My girlfriends have always worn those vest-type bras. Fiddling with a bra clasp is new to me, and I must say is rather fun," said a New Man, who then wondered if he had been grossly sexist.

Of course not. Underwear is not just about support, after all. The point of the renewed taste for undergarments with hooks and eyes, with clasps and structured seaming is that these garments look sexy.

Also, this spring's fashions dictate that one pays attention to what goes underneath. There is no point in spending more than £1,000 on a curvy Fifties-style Galliano suit unless your underwear helps you to achieve the required hourglass silhouette. Purists will go to Agent Provocateur for saucy originals found by Joseph Corre, Vivienne Westwood's son. The truly brave will go to Joseph's mum, not just for her famous corsets, but also for big knickers that incorporate a bendy metal cage to give the effect of an amazing derrire.

Most people, however, will head to trusted independent stores country- wide or to chain stores such as John Lewis, long the unsung source of serious lingerie, and to the patron saint of British underwear, St Michael, whose underwear fuses sauciness with modern comfort.

Carolyn Wagstaff, senior lingerie buyer at Marks & Spencer, says: "This new wave corsetry is for people who do not know about real corsetry; the look is achieved through products in modern fabrics, with the emphasis on comfort and control rather than a strangulation of the female form."

Likewise Cath Petchy, lingerie buyer for Selfridges, has noticed a renewed interest in old-fashioned underwear from younger clientele. "I think, before these recent catwalk looks with their emphasis on the pinched-in waist, there was a stigma about the more supportive garments. Now we are selling mini-slips with built-in briefs from Lejaby, which give a very smooth look over the hips, and waist nippers, elasticated, boned belts from Trueform retailing at £14.99, which can pull in the waist by about two inches. These garments confirm the trend for the smooth, curvy line underclothes."

It seems thatunderwear companies, too, are becoming more concerned with the look of the garment under clothes. Bras and knickers used to be promoted via the figures of scantily clad women. Now the packaging for Berlei's Ultra Shaper briefs doesn't show the product; instead, the smooth line of a skirt worn over Ultra Shapers is emphasised.

Even the Wonderbra is going underground. A recent trade fashion show for the bra demonstrated how it works when worn under fashionable clothes. Heather Davis, area sales manager for Harrods, says: "This started with the Wonderbra. Women saw what it could do for them. I also feel lingerie looks are beginning to dictate what people wear on top. Buying underwear is no longer an after-thought. Our lingerie department has become a fashion department."