The knicker test

A women's lingerie department is no place for the rash, over-confident male - especially when he's buying a brassiere. By Jonathan Glancey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some Christmases ago, the heavily rouged sales assistant in the lingerie department of Selfridges said in a louder-than-she-intended aside to her pouting colleague, "bet you he's buying them for himself." She meant me, the bag - caught in the act of sifting through racks of gossamer- thin, silk underwear.

It was an embarrassing, and then a funny moment. I sidled up to the sales desk looking like a clothes rail from Anne Summers and said, "Perhaps I am."

"Well", she says, "they do come in here, you know."


"Very polite gentlemen, you know; they always buy the large sizes. Seen it all, we have, haven't we Janet?"

"Mmm," says Janet, studying her nails and then the labels in the flimsy fripperies I had leant against the counter."

"Not really your size, eight, is it?"

Perhaps not, though to this day I have no idea what eight or 10 or 12 really means. In practice, the first two are sizes sported by baby dolls and waifs, and 12 is the beginning of average-sized, or is that "10-12"? They clearly do not measure inches, though bra sizes do. Now, these - bra sizes - are the most arcane of all underwear measurements and no man, unless he is a dress designer or cross-dresser, should approach them lightly. Nighties, yes; stockings, maybe; knickers, why not? But brassieres. What a word. It calls to mind those belting-hot contraptions men who shout incomprehensible shouts, and sell roast chestnuts, huddle over on street corners during Advent. This does not deter women from clipping brassieres, those improbable feats of structural engineering, around their chests, brave things.

Howard Hughes, the billionaire aircraft designer and general loon, was fascinated by them, lavishing (or was that ravishing?) lascivious hours and prodigious energy on the design of a perfect bra for Jane Russell (some say it was Cary Grant with whom he enjoyed a close relationship), who would otherwise have bust, I mean burst, out of her challenging Hollywood frocks.

Just because a gel has a 34-inch bust does not mean she needs a 34-inch brassiere. All women know this, but few men. Which, ultimately, is why men in search of festive female underwear are putty in the hands of the charming, yet formidable ladies who staff expert underwear shops such as Rigby & Peller and Janet Reger, or the sassy girls at raunchy and fashionable shops such as the delightful Agent Provocateur in Soho.

In their capable hands, the mysteries of the bra are suddenly unclipped. Even then, no amount of bodily semaphore on the part of a man trying to describe the amplitude (or otherwise) of his partner's charms will translate into a perfect fit on Christmas Day. Best say knickers to bras: concentrate on something easier, such as teddies and bodies. I'm not too sure which is what, but like "brassiere", these are unfortunate names. At least they are easier to buy.

The knowing ladies at Janet Reger will have the hesitant man stuffed with champagne, mince pies and box-loads of silk or satin body armour within minutes of shuffling through the door. Too embarrassed to question the prices, Hesitant Man stumbles into the Knightsbridge evening, his bank account reduced by several hundred pounds.

If there is any lesson here, it is: take with you the woman you are buying underwear for, unless you are very confident. Or cocky. Whilst no sensitive or kind woman will ever really object (except outraged newspaper columnists still fighting the bra-burning battles of yore) to attempts by their man to buy slinky underwear, there is something rather pathetic in realising that you have grossly overestimated or underestimated the contours of your partner's torso. It shows either insensitivity or a general cack- handedness, to be forgiven only after a justifiable bout of disdainful pouts and sniffs.

I have the suspicion that it is not woman, but Hesitant Man who is exploited at Christmas in the underwear (another functional and rather brutal word) buying game; sensible women simply chuckle and hide the stuff away in drawers crammed full of horrid tights, men's T-shirts and M&S knickers. However, because male hope springs eternal, men with the sense to admit that they do not know their 34AA from their D-cup should consider buying a voucher for beautiful underwear; after all, it's the thought and not the sizes that countn