Unwrap those male fantasies: Avoid loud lingerie, cheap chocolates and heavy metal albums when buying for the woman in your life, suggests Jonathan Glancey

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KNICKERS. Or, to be precise, knickers as presents. Christmas is one of those few times when - to coin a collective - embarrassments of men sidle into lingerie shops and, hoping desperately not to be seen by anyone they know, tentatively or lasciviously buy underwear for the women in their lives.

Here is the chance to fondle expensive basques and bras, stockings and slips in the softest silks. But what colours do they plump for? Black and red - and often both together: the two colours that most women abhor. Buying black underwear for your woman is like buying a saddle for a hunter: it has a racy purpose and helps towards what a man in hunting mood imagines to be an inevitable goal. As to red . . . it is the stuff of nylon and static shocks. You might as well buy her a year's subscription to Penthouse.

Give a woman such underwear and you might earn, at best, an understanding, if disdainful, glance. If only you had chosen cream or ivory, you might have risen far in the credibility as well as the bedroom stakes. Well, how would you feel if you were given a red nylon peekaboo T-shirt and a pair of black silk Y-fronts? If the answer is 'ecstatic', then you are beyond help as to what last- minute presents men might sensitively buy women for Christmas.

Is there a fail-safe list of presents to give a woman without falling into cliche, naffness or out- and-out sexism? Not quite, but it is worth a try. Subtle underwear aside, go for feel, not the number of straps, buckles and belts (unless you both enjoy being tied up for the evening). You might try the softest white towelling dressing- gown you can find, a pair of silk pyjamas or silk sheets (with sheets, be warned: there are women who find silk sheets as sexy as Jean-Paul Belmondo and those who regard them as the stuff of railway station paperbacks. The latter are likely to prefer creamy- white Irish linen.

Scent is dangerous territory. Buy the wrong one and you might as well have flushed away a bottle of vintage Krug. And make sure you know the difference between perfume and toilet water. If you know she likes one particular scent and she's running low, buy it: but remember she would probably have bought it for herself, anyway.

Presents that exude a sense of timeless luxury (as a Christmas catalogue might) are a good idea: beeswax candles, beautiful writing paper, a fountain pen . . . even a watch (not one with a digital display; remember, a clockwork mechanism beats like a heart).

A box of chocolates is unwise while conditioner, beauty packs or vouchers for a facial might be taken as insults (a. he thinks I look like a dog; b. feel like a lizard; c. my nose is spottier than a Dalmatian's).

Other presents not to buy include pets (who is going to look after it when you take her on that romantic weekend to Paris?), and music you like but she may hate (if she says she likes Madness, Guns N' Roses and Motorhead, it is probably just to humour you).

Nor should you buy kitchen equipment of any kind even if she does love cooking, nor anything that can be misconstrued as a wish to impose domestic serfdom upon her.

Vouchers, however, can be a delightful gift and are easy to buy at the last minute; a day at the The Sanctuary (a man-free haven for stressed-out women) in London's Covent Garden, a weekend in Paris or at a smart health spa. Or you could write out an invitation to a special dinner - one that you are going to cook and serve yourself.

Books? Not a cookery book (and do not even think of an apron, especially one with a 'funny' slogan), but maybe a novel she said six months ago she had always meant to read. Make sure it is a well-made book (few are, today); try an Everyman classic - inexpensive books so well made and printed that they are just the thing to take on romantic weekends abroad or to a country cottage, even if not a word gets read.

If you have the money, you might buy a car and tie a big ribbon around it; but make sure it is not a 'classic' destined to break down on its second run or one you bought because you wanted to drive it yourself. The same is true of anything on two wheels, powered or pedalled.

This is getting expensive and, in any case, the best presents of all have little or nothing to do with money. If you could find 100 white roses on Christmas Day you would be doing well; but if not, write a love letter, make something - a simple box will do - and place something inside that she will love because it is a reminder of happy times, because it rekindles old flames . . .

Best of all, give yourself - washed, tolerably groomed and prepared to be kind and thoughtful - throughout the Christmas holiday. And that takes as much doing - probably a lot more - as saving up for a Bugatti, a bottle of vintage Krug and two nights at Claridges.

Liberty, Selfridges, DH Evans and several other department stores will be open for trading tomorrow afternoon

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