Spring/summer 1996: the season of figure-hugging hipsters, clinging Capri pants, skin-tight pencil skirts and - eek! - Visible Panty Lines. Not since the current Seventies styles had their original airing has our under-apparel been so irksomely apparent. A generation reared on bikini briefs is now finding that these old favourites are not always up to the job.

Fortunately, lingerie manufacturers have not been slow to respond to the new focus on bottoms. Having spent the last few years dedicating their combined talents to the revolution in bra technology, they've now shifted their efforts downstairs. A dizzying range of shapes and hi-tech fabrics means that not only can you buy the perfect knickers for just about any garment - making VPLs all but obsolete - you can even buy knickers that help to coax your body into a suitable shape.

This isn't as nasty as it sounds. Women may once have been prepared to hoist themselves into stiff, blood-constricting corsets but, despite recent hype about the corset's renaissance (and with the notable exception of Paula Yates), they're not any more. According to Mary Flack of Fenwick if it weren't for the new, soft but firm fabrics such as Lycra and Tactel, women wouldn't even look at body shapers. "The fabric thing is crucial. It's got to be soft and comfy. If it's stretchy but with not a lot of give you're not going to get the comfort factor women want."

Currently upstaging the Wonderbra on billboards is the Bijou by Triumph, a sort of Wonderbra for the nether regions. In its most extreme form this covers the body from waist to mid-thigh, with a tough tummy-flattening panel and a crudely buttock-shaped rear that includes two panels to arrest bottom droop. On first acquaintance this looks mean. Surprisingly, it's quite comfortable. Sue Loder of Triumph explains that, just as some bras are designed to have breasts carefully poured into them and tweaked aloft, with the Bijou "everything's designed to be in exactly the right place; you fit yourself into it". Nevertheless, she says "they're not uncomfortable. No one's prepared to suffer for fashion now".

Certainly, there are no VPLs here, but not too many points for glamour either. "The idea is that people shouldn't know you're wearing them, they just give a natural line," Loder says. The Bijou is part of a trend towards big knickers, according to Fenwick, the store seen as a national underwear barometer. "Lots of women like to wear the deep-cut styles that give no line at all over the bottom," says Mary Flack. But aren't they a touch unsightly? "That doesn't seem to worry people. When they're very soft they can look quite sporty."

Marks & Spencer has even introduced a style called ``big knickers'', many times more lacy and glamorous than their name suggests. Better still from M&S are their Tactel "hot pants" and their stretch satin high-waisters. Both styles have a hot pants-style cut and a high waist and look less like something you'd resort to on a ``big knicker day'', more like something St Trinian's girls would wear on the sports field. "They're what we call fitted French knickers," says M&S's Laura Middleton, "and they're very popular because they also provide an element of control."

All these styles are more or less invisible under Capri pants and pencil skirts, provided they're worn in a generous size. Hipsters are different. They require something cut low in the waist but long in the bum. Hanro does such a thing, in Swiss cotton and some of Sloggi's briefer cotton/Lycra numbers will do the trick just because of their superior cut.

But the bottom line solution to VPL is the G-string. Fenwick says it is its fastest growing line, and Marks & Spencer says that G-strings are "positively flying out of the shops at the moment". A definite mental leap is required for the uninitiated, and they do take some getting used to, but most are extremely comfortable, if a little chilly, and they were the only knickers that passed our toughest VPL test - skin-tight cotton/Lycra hipsters - with flying colours. For top glamour and comfort look out for Jessica by Triumph, a little confection of a pair of knickers. But you'll find plenty out there, from plain cottons at Knickerbox to wispier styles from Hanro and Gossard.

There is, of course, one other solution to VPL: many women swear by the no-knicker solution. This may bring close-fitting trousers a little too close for comfort, but with the longer pencil skirts, well why not?

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