I have always had a problem buying women’s underwear. They never do it in my size. OK, that’s an old gag, but seriously, like most men, the idea of shopping for lingerie for my partner fills me with dread.
I know I should be able to turn up with a neatly wrapped tissue bundle and a bottle of champagne, light some candles and be a south-London Casanova, but frankly, I fall down at the first hurdle.
So when my wife said she wanted some new underwear for her birthday, I had a big problem. You see, lingerie is just so alien to us (men). Panic sets in straight away when you’re confronted by racks of the stuff, most of which you just don’t understand.
In the past, I’ve tried to overcome my fear in the comparative anonymity of department stores, but even there you are so exposed - a lone male in a sea of flesh- and-white-colored dainty stuff - that you feel compelled to examine it so that the staff don’t think you’re just hanging around for cheap thrills.
After handling the goods, you have to buy something to prove you’re not a pervert, and I usually ended up with the same simple, sporty Calvin Kleins.
These were always gratefully received, but I knew I was expected to do better. So when my friend Ian told me that a friend of his worked in Agent Provocateur in Soho, and that he had scored many brownie points by showering his various girlfriends (he’s not married) with little flimsy bits from there, I asked for an introduction.
We met in a bar called The Player, a low-lit basement next to Agent Provocateur, which seemed appropriate as Ian informed me that “player” means “pimp” in street parlance (he really isn’t married). Agent Provocateur is run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s son, Joseph Corre, and its windows tend to be very Betty Page. A recent tableau featured two startlingly lifelike mannequins in blue and red lacey bras. One was bent over a shiny metal dustbin.
Inside, the heavily perfumed air, the velvet seats, the black PVC sofa and the red Chinese lanterns give the place the feel of a cartoon bordello. The sales assistants in their tight pink button-up mini-dresses look like kinky lab assistants, and the wares are appropriately, well, provocative.
Ian’s friend explained that the staff were trained in guiding the often embarrassed and bewildered lone males to the right choice. Apparently, we have a tendency to go for fancy red stuff, and needed to be reminded that we are not shopping exclusively for our own pleasure. It was worth considering what kind of signal we would send to a partner: would she mind the notion that you saw her as some sort of Soho seductress?
So the next day I marched confidently into the store. The staff were indeed help personified, but I confess, after about 10 minutes my courage deserted me and I left. I blamed Alfred Hitchcock.
If you’ve seen Vertigo, you will remember that James Stewart thinks Kim Novak is dead, and so can’t believe his luck when he meets a dead ringer for the icy blonde. Of course, it turns out to be her all along, but Jimmy doesn’t know this. The second half of the film has him indulging in sinister Pygmalion-like activities, molding the new Kim into the old. That idea of trying to groom a woman to please some weird ideal you may have of her has always struck me as kinky, but in a bad way. And what could be a more intimate example of playing Henry Higgins than giving your other half sexy smalls to dress up in?
But a birthday is a birthday. I rang Anna, a Polish lawyer I know. “What knickers are you wearing?”
“Who is this?”
“No, no, it’s me,” I said and told her my dilemma.
“Bodas,” she barked. I assumed this was some Polish expletive and started to apologize again, but she explained that it was the name of a lingerie label. “I think it was started by a female ex-banker. The stuff’s really good; the kind of thing women buy for themselves.”
Later in Bodas’ Notting Hill store, a minimal white and steel space with the items hanging neatly along one wall, I found a sheer bra and matching French knickers in black Jabouley Lace which were just the right side of sexy without being unimaginative.
Now all I needed was the champagne and candles.