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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006, 08:44 GMT
Supporting act
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Are You Being Served
Male assistants are being hired to help anxious lingerie shoppers
Anxious about what lingerie to choose for the woman in your life? A shop is hiring male assistants to help nervous men choose underwear.

You can see them when you're Christmas shopping. Awkward, not quite sure where to look, not sure if touching is encouraged or downright prohibited, fiddling with labels at an embarrassed arm's length...

Yes, it's men in the lingerie department, trying to guess what their partners would like for that special present. Too much or too little? Too risky or too sensible?

Even the word lingerie has a rustle of the exotic about it. For many men, this area of the shop is unknown territory for the rest of the year, with its own code of styles and measurements.

And making this once a year trip to the underwear section, men shuffle through the shimmering shelves, trying not to catch the eye of the mannequins, looking like smugglers going through a tough customs checkpoint.

Of course there are assistants there to help - but what exactly are you going to ask for? How many questions can you ask before the sleaze alarm goes off?

Mission impossible

So unable to ask - and trapped in the headlights of embarrassment - you grab the first approximation of what you think is wanted and head for the check out. Job done. Mission accomplished.

Shop display
A mannequin appeals to Christmas shoppers

Or not, according to Marks & Spencer, which says that its research shows that only one in three recipients of these seasonal stocking fillers is happy with her partner's choice.

So in an attempt to soothe the anxious male shopper, and to help women get something they might like, the retailer is hiring specialist male advisers to work in the lingerie departments in 50 of its stores.

These so-called "stocking fellas" will be able to step in with comradely advice. Suits her, sir. It really suits her.

Katy Pratt, spokesperson for the shop, says that its research showed that men buying underwear for women "didn't know basic things like sizes or what kind of lingerie she liked".

In one case last Christmas, she says, a male shopper came to buy his wife's underwear present armed only with her shoe size.

Shy shoppers

"Some men are quite confident about asking for help - but there are others who are embarrassed and would much rather talk to another man about it.

Underwater Father Christmas
Male shoppers can feel out of their depth in the lingerie section

"Often you'll get men who sidle up, grab the first thing they see, they'll get to the till as quickly as they possibly can and get out as quickly as they can. And what are the chances of getting something their partners actually like?"

Sandra Boler, former underwear editor at Vogue, says that anyone shopping for Christmas lingerie should consider what the recipient is likely to want to wear.

"Before they even go into a shop, they should really think hard. It's pointless buying a push-up cleavage bra for someone for whom it's wildly inappropriate, the head of the bridge club or whatever.

"You've got to know vaguely what you're doing, vaguely what they like, rather than imposing your own fantasy and I think most women have a horror of being given tarty underwear."

Of course, if it still looks like a tricky operation, and many men secretly think about shopping as a time-sensitive military exercise, there's always online shopping.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Having been burned several times by buying clothes that don't fit her, I now only buy clothes she has tried on. Women's sizing being wildly inconsistent works of fiction, online ordering is no better than trying to guess whether that item in the shop will fit her even though the tag says it will and she says she liked one just like it a couple of months ago.
Nicolai, Cambridge

You hit the nail on the head. I did my Xmas shopping recently and was so apprehensive about entering the Lingerie Dept. The nerves wore off once I discovered the place full of men, wondering around sheepishly and trying not to make eye contact with any female around.
Darren Smiles, Newcastle upon Tyne

Just been to town to buy some lingerie for the missuss. Third time I've been now, third time I've come back empty-handed. Guess it doesn't help when I get so red in these shops I make Rudolph look like he needs a tan.
Mr. Red-faced Williams, North Wales

Shopping for lingerie would be a lot easier if the plastic mannequins weren't all size 6 with concave chests and breasts the size of thimbles. Clothes don't "hang" on my wife, they get "filled". Come on, retailers, recognise that your customers aren't all anorexic teenagers.
Mark, Bath

It's true, this can be very difficult! But I think that a man should always go for pretty lingerie, never the 'sexy' ones. If a woman feels good in her underwear, then she's much more likely to feel sexy too. And pretty underwear does not have to be boring, big knickers! Come on, men, it's not exactly rocket science! As the article says, buy underwear with your loved one in mind, not what's in your mind!
Keith, Derby

All sounds familiar, in my past efforts Ive found myself fumbling about trying to find the size I need only for the whole rail of lingerie to fall down, drawing even more attention to my already embarassed self. Then you find yourself trying to put everything back, and im convinced when at the till there is a cheeky smile from the sales assistant. By the time you walk out the shop it feels like it has been mission impossible !
Simon, West Sussex

It's ok for women. Choosing slippers is easy!
Gerry T, Faringdon

I keep the vital statistics in my phone. I usually find the female staff are more than willing to help and I enjoy buying underwear for my wife. Guys, it's not a problem, enjoy it.
Phil, West Yorks

Of course, once you've picked out the perfect little something there is the matter of timing of delivery. Witnessing my friend's wife unwrap something made of barely enough cloth to cover a two pound coin in front of the entire extended family was not the most comfortable of experiences. I laugh about it now though.
Andrew Rodgers, London

My husband dragged my sister around the shops to pick out underwear for me one year. He knew my size, but just needed a woman to tell him what was suitable. Having men help out men will probably not end up with them buying something the woman would like, but something that the man would like to see the woman in, which is something completely different. Men just don't understand underwear.
Sethaen, Kent

"Many men secretly think about shopping as a time-sensitive military exercise." What you mean it's not? Men like to focus on the task at hand. They usually know what they want and want to get the task done as quickly and painlessly as possible, so they can go sit down the pub. There are many online stores for lingerie, and I personally prefer these because they have more of a selection and there's no pressure to buy anything.
Jon, Leicester

Here is a bit of advice that may help overcome your anxiousness. Just think: If they have it on the shelf, they want you to buy it. No need to be embarrassed about it. And any shop assistant is most likely to have been there for a little while and to know the business. They too want you to buy it and ask questions about it. No reason to be embarrassed either. Take a photo of your partner along. That might help getting the right advice.
Holger, Bristol

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