Thong or bikini, sir?

How to go lingerie shopping for your woman without feeling as though you're 16 and sneaking a peek at Playboy with your Sunday-school teacher standing next to you.

By Charles Taylor
Published December 20, 2002 8:36PM (EST)

If men who go shopping for clothes for their wives and girlfriends are still treated the way women used to be treated when they went shopping for a new car -- as if they don't know anything -- there's a good reason for that. When it comes to clothes, their own or anyone else's, most men don't know anything.

Part of the reason is the belief, instilled in men from boyhood, that taking interest in clothes is a sign of effeminacy. So, just as they were by their mothers, a number of men are dressed by their girlfriends or wives. That can be great. The opinion of someone who loves you can open your eyes to things you might overlook for yourself. But to be totally dependent on a woman to dress you is a little like getting to a certain age and still needing to have your meat cut. And it's got nothing to do with money. You can put together a perfectly decent wardrobe from the Gap or Target or H&M. It has to do with taking an interest in how you look, having some basic feel for matching colors and patterns and textures, which isn't so hard as it sounds (there's no secret knowledge in figuring out that a plaid tie does not go with a striped shirt).

With that kind of background, it's no wonder that men who go Christmas clothes shopping for the women in their lives feel utterly lost. And when it comes to lingerie shopping, the awkwardness that a lot of men feel is coupled with blushing, adolescent embarrassment, as if you were 16 again and sneaking a peek at Playboy at the newsstand with your Sunday-school teacher standing next to you.

The most important thing to acknowledge and accept about buying lingerie is this: The saleswomen know you're getting it as a prelude to sex. You're a big boy. You have sex. And buying lingerie is a way of announcing that the lady in your life turns you on enough for you to want to see her in these skimpy little things. Where's the shame in that? (Would you rather have the salesgirl think you're buying it for yourself?)

This may seem like running before you're ready to walk, but the best thing I can think of for overcoming any embarrassment you might feel at buying lingerie is first taking a trip to the nearest women-run sex boutique. (The vibrators and dildos and pocket pussies on display at the local porn shop don't count.) These places, like New York's wonderful and welcoming Toys in Babeland (how can you not love a place with a name like that?), are run by people who are expert in making the customers feel at home, being frank in a way that encourages you to be frank, too.

Doing some Christmas shopping at Toys recently, I overheard one slightly self-conscious guy looking for a vibrator for his girlfriend but unsure what she'd be comfortable with. The saleswoman started with some good basic questions ("Did you want it for clitoral stimulation or penetration?") and proceeded from there, talking the fellow through the various choices. Before long, he opened up and was talking with her comfortably. These shops, if you're lucky enough to have one near you, are some of the best places around for couples. And if you've spent some time weighing the pros and cons of the Hitachi Magic Wand and the notorious Rabbit, hearing about the benefits of dildos and butt plugs made of silicone, then tap pants and merry widows are a breeze.

Preparing to buy lingerie is the most pleasurable homework you'll ever do. Basically, it means watching your wife or girlfriend as she parades around the bedroom getting dressed or undressed. She what she's comfortable with. Does she like strapless bras or ones with straps? Underwire or smooth cups? Full coverage or demi bras? Panties or thongs? And if she doesn't wear the latter, why? Does anal floss make her uncomfortable? Or are thongs just not something that fits in with her everyday wardrobe? Would she be willing to wear one if it weren't something she'd have on from morning till night, if she'd be wearing it for a more intimate, relaxed and shorter period of time?

Take her body into account. That doesn't mean that if she isn't built like Tyra Banks, you should get her some ugly utility underwear. Of course, fantasies play a large part in buying lingerie -- yours and hers. But have your lady's body in mind, not Tyra's. Your decision about what to buy starts with observation, and looking at the woman who turns you on is never a chore.

When you've done the homework, which includes knowing her size (Don't know her size? Why not leave a little mash note in her lingerie drawer telling her that Santa would like to know her sizes in all sorts of garments, and that a note from her left in your underwear drawer would surely find its way to him), it's time to actually go shopping.

Now comes perhaps the most important piece of advice you'll ever hear about lingerie shopping, and it's one that American men need to take to heart: Avoid Victoria's Secret like the devil himself will swallow your soul if you so much as set foot in the place. I know, I know. We all see the ads, the catalogs, the fashion show, and it all looks pretty good. God knows I can't blame anyone whose head is turned by the sight of Tyra Banks (Tyra -- be mine) in some tiny ensemble. But speaking from personal experience, the gap between the way things look in catalogs and advertisements and the quality of stuff is a yawning chasm. You'd do better at Frederick's. At least their stuff is honestly cheap.

Start examining Victoria's Secret merchandise up close and personal and the first thing you'll notice is how stiff it is, particularly the bras and merry widows. And the more intricate the design, the less flexible the garment. Do you want to fool around feeling as if you're locked in place? Now take a look at the lace trimmings on the bras and panties. Feel how rough it is. Remember, this is going to be right next to her most sensitive areas. How turned on would you be with a strip of sandpaper in your shorts? Lingerie should be relaxing, caressing, able to move with the wearer (who may be striking some positions she wouldn't normally assume).

This is probably a good time to discuss fabric, to which you must pay attention. The first thing that may catch your eye is that satiny imitation silk that so many manufacturers use. This stuff is a no-no; once the initial flashiness of the visual impact has worn off, there's no getting around the fact that it looks (and feels) cheap. It doesn't hang (in the case of camisoles and tap pants) or caress the body the way a good silk does (good silk being both slightly heavy and also flexible, flowing). Cotton is fine, but only good, high-thread-count cotton, the kind that is so soft it has a slight sheen to it and can momentarily fool you into thinking it's silk. (If you want to use your own unmentionables as a comparison, think of the difference between, say, Hanes boxers and Calvin Klein boxers. Or think of the durable yet comfortable material of an exceptional dress shirt.)

Back to Victoria's Secret: There's also the problem of the cheeriness factor. Somebody in the company's marketing department seems to have instructed the saleswomen that men feel uncomfortable buying lingerie and should be offered help. Fair enough. But not every two minutes. As with many retailers, you can't traverse 10 feet in any Victoria's Secret location without being stopped by a big, smiley "Do you need any help?" Why haven't retailers figured out that constant attention is a turnoff, no matter what you're shopping for? It smacks of the hard sell, the last thing guys who are already a little sheepish need. Much better for salespeople to let customers know they are there with a simple "Hello" and hang back until the customer has had to time to browse.

The weekend before Thanksgiving my wife and I, killing time in a St. Louis mall, went into Victoria's Secret. In less than ten minutes, we were approached by four different saleswomen, all with the inevitable, intrusive "Do you need any help?" After the last one, I told my wife that the next person who asked me that question was going to be greeted with the sight of me holding two panties aloft and asking, "Which one of these will get me harder?" Being a sensible girl, she got me the hell out of there.

I realize that vote of no confidence in the nation's biggest lingerie retailer may be a real discouragement to some men. But you can find something much nicer in the intimate apparel section of any decent department store. The only problem there is you may be dealing with a saleswoman who looks like your Aunt Esther. The best bets are the lingerie boutiques that you can find in almost any city. Because they have to compete with department stores, these places usually have a decent selection of the better-quality stuff.

Doing some lingerie shopping for my wife this Christmas, I've come across a line called Ariane, which is beautifully made (with careful details like front, instead of side, seams on the panties) and very reasonable. I was particularly taken by their fuller-cut thong panties, with a come-hither half-covering provided for each cheek.

But I digress ...

The best all-around lingerie shopping experience I've had was courtesy of the London-based lingerie company Agent Provocateur, run by Joseph Westwood, the son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and his wife, Serena. There aren't many stores out there, three in London, one in Los Angeles, and the new one in New York (there's also a boutique in the New York Henri Bendel store). Fortunately, they've got a Web site that you can order from. Even better, get their catalog. Every year, the company outdoes itself with an imaginative catalog. This year's consists of 36 cheeky postcards that feature the store's wares in a series of high-chic cheesecake snaps. It comes in a pink cardboard folder titled Agent Provocateur Hotel, resembling a swanky hotel-room menu, and the ordering form is cunningly titled Room Service.

If you're lucky enough to be near one of the stores themselves -- go. Recently, I had probably the nicest experience I've ever had Christmas shopping for my wife in the just-opened New York branch. The store is simply laid out, in soft pink light, with a single set of each piece of merchandise on display (so you're not shoving through overcrowded racks) and the various sizes stored in bins below. You don't feel overwhelmed the minute you walk in. The saleswomen are dressed in pink waitress smocks, usually opened a few buttons to reveal not just décolletage but to give you a teasing hint of the product on sale.

And the quality of the company's lingerie is just terrific, light and airy, supple in a way that tells you it's going to be comfortable to wear as well as a joy to behold. The details, like a length of pink ribbon threaded through the edges of a black demi-bra, make Agent Provocateur the Miles Davis of lingerie shops -- it plays very few notes, but every one is exactly right. If my experiences browsing and shopping in New York are any indication, Agent Provocateur goes out of its way to find employees who are friendly, helpful and charming. When I was ready to buy (if you think I'm telling you what I got my wife, forget it, bub), I was fortunate enough to have the aid of a sunny delight named Krys. Her ravishing smile would be enough reward for a weary Christmas shopper, but the way she talked me through the choices I was considering, helping me find the right size based on my wife's measurements and height, gently reassuring me that I'd made good selections (the exact opposite of the hard sell), was the kind of help you dream of when you're buying anything -- not just lingerie. It made me excited about giving the gift (and not just for the obvious reasons). Guys, this is exactly the kind of experience you want when Christmas shopping for your honey.

Here's the downside: Good lingerie is not cheap. Some of the better brands, like La Perla (dubbed, by a woman friend of mine, "the Ferrari of lingerie") can break the bank. A set that consists of bra or bustier, panties, garter belt and stockings can set you back anywhere from $150 to nearly $300 and beyond. Don't feel cheap if you can't afford that. You can do very nicely for less with silk camisole and tap pants sets, which are usually available in nice department stores. Or even with a nice selection of silk panties. And if you're absolutely stymied, there's nothing wrong with a gift certificate. (But only if you promise you will pick out something together.)

One more thing. After you've gone to the trouble of selecting the lingerie and paying for it -- for God's sake let her wear it awhile! Recall the words of the sex-ed instructor played by John Cleese in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" who, when a student suggests that massaging the clitoris is a good way to begin getting a woman sexually aroused, responds with "What's wrong with a nice kiss, boy? No need to dive straight for the poor girl's clitoris!"

Don't tear the new scanties off like you're a greyhound chasing the rabbit at the dog track. Take time to enjoy them and to admire her in them. You wanted to make her feel sexy, and a big part of that depends on you. Inspiration shouldn't be tough to come by, especially this time of year. The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful. And since there's no place to go ... I think you can take it from there.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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