Dressing down

Everyone knows this trick: your boss is giving you an earful, so you picture him in his smalls. Strip away pinstriped authority, says Belinda Morris, and imagine the wanton within
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The Independent Online
You should never judge a book by its cover. Seldom was a maxim truer than in the case of underwear. Until X-ray vision becomes commonplace, neither the casual voyeur nor the skilled style spy can be certain what lies beneath the layers of tailored respectability that form the average working wardrobe. Even the experienced eyes of the most senior bra-fitters in the best lingerie departments have been fooled by outward appearances.

Playing fashion detective is a good game. It not only offers hours of harmless amusement on buses, the Tube and (especially rewarding, I've found) commuter trains, but can also go some way towards relieving tension in the workplace. Picture the scene. It's a Wednesday morning (so the weekend's still a long way off) and it's been a bad week so far. You've arrived at your desk to find a curt, "see me now" e-mail missive from your boss. (Ten years out of school, and it still feels like a summons from your headmistress.)

It's at tense and uncomfortable moments like this that it's worth remembering a neat trick that's been handed down through generations of tyrannised workers. As you stand there, quaking/seething/embarrassed before the tyrant in question, visualise him, or her, in just their underwear. To a certain extent, the effect this vision has on your composure and sense of consolation will depend on their physical attractiveness, or lack of it. But whatever, when they're robbed suddenly of the outward vestige of pinstriped authority, you have before you another human being, with the frailties, foibles and fantasies of the rest of us. (By the way, this can also be a useful ruse when faced with an intimidating job interview.)

The best part about the game is that you can really let your imagination go for a long walk. It's not much fun picturing those sensible M&S knickers that come in packs of five (much as you love them). This is personal entertainment that could test the creative resources of a girlie mag art director. Think frills, feather and fur and you're on the right track. Because there's a theory that lurking within every straitlaced Miss Moneypenny, there's a fluffy sex kitten just dying to reveal her shockingly naughty undies, such as Gossard's new Ultra Retro deep suspender in cardinal red satin with black lace overlay - and wicked Balconette bra to match.

And that beneath his Savile Row suit lurks underwear so scandalously minimal that even the word "smalls" is too big. Not for him the anonymity of practical Y-fronts in brisk white cotton. When he gets run over by that bus, he wants the world to know he has racier taste. He'll be wearing something with anatomical seaming to show off his curves, such as a Sixties Op-Art spot tanga by Hom, or one of their new H01 briefs with the revolutionary horizontal front openings (he didn't get to where he is today by not being at the cutting edge of intimate fashion).

Or then again, he might be wearing something cheeky by Brass Monkeys - the grey and black camouflage thong perhaps, or the Lycra shorts and matching T-shirt (for clubbing later). To avoid the dreaded VPL (yes, even men worry about this) under his snug Helmut Lang trousers, he'll probably choose 2(x)ist's discreetly sexy, Y-back thong.

If the choice in men's underwear has become a little more exciting of late, then it's as nothing compared to the tantalising array of deliciously saucy lingerie for would-be seductresses. See the woman in the sharp, black, masculine suit? She's not smiling because she's just pulled off her first multi-million-dollar deal; she's smiling because no one else at that boardroom table knows that all that separates her from the virgin wool gabardine is a sheer voile, ruffled basque from the boudoir-like, Soho-based lingerie shop Agent Provocateur. She likes to wear it with satin-trimmed panties with ties on the hip.

She may appear, on the outside, to have embraced the return of the Eighties power suit, but inside she's all Christine Keeler-esque froth and glamour. And it isn't just clever cutting that gives her such neat curves in those sharp executive suits - it's her silver Lycra waist-cincher with G-string attached, by Janet Reger. On occasions she likes to tease with just a glimpse of Marvel's hot yellow mesh-and-lace body (from Boisvert) above the top button of her jacket. And now, she hears, they've introduced their own range of leopard print and sheer turquoise mesh lingerie; she particularly has her eye on the keyhole-back body with push-up bra.

Secretly wicked wantons they may be, but in fact these paradigms of the boardroom are an example to all of us, because the word is out that the key to wealth, power and happiness lies in nice underwear. Ask any woman who has had the good sense to invest in it, and she will assure you that her level of confidence and sense of power increase 100-fold when boosted by beautiful lingerie. So, next time you're mentally undressing your boss, make a note to ask for the labeln