Some brief encounters with history: Underwear fashion has gone back to its foundations, with strange and perplexing results. Helen Fielding reports

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A SMALL, very old man in a raincoat was standing, bewildered, in the Marks & Spencer's men's underwear department. 'I want some white underpants,' he said plaintively. Pants buying today is indeed a bewildering thing. The Y-fronts the old man sought were there all right - except they were called 'briefs', and were mingling with 'slips' - jockey pants without a fly; 'tangas' - elastic waistbands with a sort of pouch attached; 'boxers'; 'trunks' - baggy-legged 1950s-shorts affairs; 'all-in-ones' - trunks attached to vests; and trunk/tanga hybrids (which look like a vest for a baby without a head) attached to a strip of elastic which says (as if to reassure puzzled shoppers) 'authentic underwear'.

Upstairs in the vast ladies lingerie section, pants could be 'garters', 'minis', 'bikinis', 'high legs', 'French knickers', 'smoothline satin boxers', 'pantalettes,' or 'pantee corselettes'. Classic big knickers which come up to the waist as worn by Mummies, were called 'briefs'. How to choose? White, black, brightly hued, floral, satin, satin with Lycra, cotton Lycra, jellyfish-style frilly, lacey, stretch lacey - and that was without considering the 60 types of bra, the camisoles, cropped tops, bodies, teddies, chemise teddies, hip and thigh slimmers, slips and vests.

Underwear is ranging out of control - though, funnily enough, 'control' has a lot to do with this, being one of the new trends in women's styles. Sales are holding well in the recession. Whereas the number of skirts that were sold between 1988 and 1991 fell by 12 per cent, sales of bras showed a 1 per cent rise. Knickerbox, Britain's only retail chain which exclusively sells underwear, has shown 35 per cent growth over the last two years. Even at the top of the market, Janet Reger reports a good season, with a bra at just under pounds 100 being her best selling item.

It is not just the buoyancy of the pounds 2bn market which is surprising: it is its diversity. The undergarment has undergone a fundamental shift from a largely functional creature - there for warmth, support, cleanliness, modesty or comfort - to a fashion statement. It now mirrors the outerwear fashion industry in its range of looks, and its harking back to great pants and bras of the past - even great cleavages, thighs and bottoms of the past - as the consumer seeks to mould the body to the look. The motivation for an attractive purchase has come a long way from the fear of an encounter with an aggressive bus.

Stephen Schaffer, who co-founded Knickerbox in 1986, attributes the industry's current success, in part, to the fact that underwear is a 'consolation purchase'. 'You can't afford a new outfit but you can afford a new bra or pair of briefs. Also, Britain has caught up with the rest of Europe with the notion of buying different types of underwear for specific looks.' Schaffer points too to the notion of underwear as outerwear, pioneered by designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, championed by Madonna and, last year, by fashion editors everywhere. Gillian Wheatcroft of Marks & Spencer, mentions in addition the influence of the club scene on younger buyers, and says that whereas the trends haven't significantly altered the number of bras bought - one or two on average per year - women are willing to pay higher prices for the required look.

There has been a fundamental change in the idea of what underwear is. As June Kenton of corsetiers Rigby & Peller explains: 'Back in the Forties and Fifties, underwear was a purely functional thing. There was nothing to choose from, you wore a bra, vest, Celanese pants and a full petticoat because clothes weren't lined. Glamorous underwear was seen as an enormous luxury. Now it's something people see as a part of their expenditure. They are prepared to spend much more, because they can get beautiful things at reasonable prices.'

Men, too, are taking more interest in what they have on underneath. 'Five or six years ago most men's underwear was bought by women. Now, far more men are buying for themselves and taking an interest in the new looks,' says Nick Kaloyirou of Marks & Spencer.

The development of Lycra (invented in 1959) by the Du Pont company has been a crucial factor in underwear fashion since the early Eighties, but most recently because it has opened the potential for 'control garments' which look as good as normal underwear and don't hurt. The female enthusiasm for corsets, roll-ons, and edifices like the Playtex 18-hour girdle, so popular in the Sixties, died the death with the younger market in the Seventies. As Du Pont's spokesman put it: 'The Seventies saw a move into naturalness, comfort was the objective. But despite negative reactions towards the old girdle, control was still a live issue . . .' Quite so. However, 'contouring' rather than control is the concept now, and it appears that younger women are buying these newly evolved garments with great enthusiasm. As Gillian Wheatcroft says, 'Shapewear has been one of our greatest lingerie successes for the last 18 months.'

Old product revivals add to the retrospective picture. Next summer, Playtex is re-launching the much joked-about Cross Your Heart bra . The range will feature some updated models, but marketing director Alistair Edwards has high hopes that the classic twin-peaks-and-crossed-elastic look - even the long-line look - will be a hit with the younger market. 'One of our best-selling lines in Italy is one of our most functional retrospective bras.'

Gossard of course, had massive success last year with the Wonderbra revival. Cas Petchley, lingerie buyer for Selfridges, predicts that the Fifties pointy bra will be big in the next few months - with possibly a return to the old spiralling stitching round the points. 'Whereas a Wonderbra is good for an evening dress, the Fifties look is better under a tight sweater'.

Economics plays a part in the varying looks, albeit somewhat confusingly. There is a school of thought which says that uplift tends to be associated with a recession. In the Forties, pneumatic, skyward-pointing bosoms were seen as a morale booster.

Yet dressing down is a feature of recession too - 'grunge' dressing as they call it in the United States. The 1950s look - knitted cotton and elastic waistbands, seams on the outside - pioneered by Calvin Klein, is very much the underwear thing this season. But whereas in women's wear it is just one trend amongst many, in the men's department it is becoming overwhelming. 'The fancy boxer-short boom has dwindled dramatically,' says Nicky Lovell, menswear buyer for Selfridges. 'It was a thing of the Eighties. In the understated Nineties, the dull-coloured, functional style is mainstream'.

Functional it may be, but some of its mutations are very odd indeed. The fashionable Hom range features some completely demented garments - including a long-legged, long-sleeved, button-up all-in-one which Stan Laurel would not have been ashamed to be seen in. Even more alarming is a more avant-garde section of Hom's range, bucking the functional trend with black lace men's all-in-ones. Nicky Lovell says that these extraordinary items sell surprisingly well - and not just with the gay market: 'You get men buying them with their girlfriends, for fun.'

In the tempting aisles of the underwear departments, the dizzyingly diverse new ranges are greeted with enthusiasm, even among the older buyers. 'You do get blinded by it all,' says Maureen Ryan, who is 55. 'I pay more, comparatively, than I did 10 or 15 years ago, but it's worth it because underwear is a lot nicer than it was.' And Brenda White, 53, toying with a pounds 12.99 lacey uplift bra, agrees, 'When you can get luxury stuff that looks like Janet Reger for these prices, it's definitely worth it. What you wear underneath is very important. It makes you feel nice.'

Among the men, the reaction is more guarded. Howard Goodall, a musician in his mid-thirties, has become very keen on the new grungy look but has worrying problems with the popular button flies. 'If you're standing between two lorry drivers in the gents in a motorway service station, and have to spend ages fiddling around with the buttons, it looks like you're doing something a bit dodgy.'

'I'm 66 and I just think in terms of Y-fronts,' says Thomas Bartlett, a credit controller. 'All-in-ones? Don't be daft, at my age? I'm not that sort.' But Kenneth Osborne, also 66, was looking with great interest at the babies-vest style 'authentic underwear'. 'I might try these,' he said. 'I think it's fun, all these different things. I wear different ones at different times. My wife bought me some fancy boxer shorts to go on holiday. Mind you, it does get confusing. It used to be so simple.'

Women's underwear, too, can be increasingly baffling for the not particularly clued-in male.

How is a man to know, when he slips his hand round your waist and meets an impenetrable sheath of Lycra, that he's dealing with a trendy girl in a 'support body', and not a peculiar throwback-woman in an all-in-one roll-on? If, as so often happens, the said 'body' has pinged undone between the legs, and an inexplicable flap with press-studs is added to the melee (possibly with a piece of underwiring also protruding from your top), then all that effort to look sexy begins to seem counter-productive.

All things considered, an element of caution is wise in the rush towards fashion in those items usually seen only by intimate friends.

The somewhat unreconstructed comments of darts supremo Eric Bristow nevertheless have a ring of good sense to them. 'I buy my own underpants: boxer shorts. But they're not fashion items, they're purely functional. By the time a girl gets to see your pants, you've got where you want to be anyway.'

(Photographs omitted)

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