Forget the credit crunch, sales of expensive lingerie and sex toys are rising
The bottom may have fallen out of the property market, but one growth sector enjoying a strong rise in business is luxury underwear and adult bedroom accessories. People have no say in the rise and fall of the Nasdaq Index, but they have control over the little pleasures in life and they are certainly planning to exploit it; they may have to cut out frills elsewhere, but that doesn't go as far as saucy smalls. Next month, sales will go into overdrive in Ireland as gifts of lacy bras, basques, knickers and bedroom accessories -- such as nipple balm and crystal-tipped whips -- wing their way to wives, girlfriends and mistresses.
For as long as anyone can remember, lingerie has been regarded as not much more than window shopping for men, or a frustrating obstruction to getting a girl naked. Mark Twain once said: "Clothes maketh the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." Quite what he would have made of Tim Bret-Day's shoot for Agent Provocateur (right), featuring Helena Christensen and Alice Dellal (the model with the half-shaved head) is another story. The shoot was inspired by Hogarth's The Rake's Progress.
Designer handbag collecting is now clichéd, while treating oneself to shoes is an unimaginative folly that went out with Carrie Bradshaw's corsages. Given that underwear can insinuate, lie, persuade, suggest and seduce all at once, it was only a matter of time before we came to view it as a sort of invisible, secret status symbol.
Yet herein lies the rub -- if women feel that the art of underwear buying is the ultimate treat, why are they so often affronted when men want to buy it for them? Women often claim to bedeck themselves in La Perla, Agent Provocateur and Coco de Mer simply for themselves, but does this really ring true when faced with the prospect of pleasing an Irish man?
"Women without fail claim that they're wearing it for themselves," says magazine publisher Michael O'Doherty. "They're not fooling anyone -- we know it's for us."
The single man-about-town who recently launched Stellar, Ireland's newest glossy magazine for women, isn't slow to admit his skills at the delicate art of buying lingerie for women. "I've bought La Perla in Dublin, and Victoria's Secret in New York. It's always the same reaction -- impressed by my bravery, grateful for my taste, and relieved I bought it in the right size. Not half as relieved as I was."
A survey by Maidenform, lingerie specialists for the past 80 years, found that 54pc of men believe women consider what is attractive to men as their primary focus when buying lingerie. However, only 7pc of women said that this was the case. "I would buy a girl lingerie for herself, never really for me," claims TV presenter Baz Ashmawy from How Low Can You Go. "You could go all out and buy something sexy, but I'd rather buy her something I've a chance of seeing her in. Girls don't wear the really sexy stuff all that often, do they? I like to buy cutesy, flowery and girly stuff for girls, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not sexy."
In the past, Ashmawy has indeed splashed out on racy garb, something he now views with mixed feelings. "It was a winner at the time all right, but I never got to see her in it. We didn't last too long after that, and to be honest I was quite happy not seeing her in it by that stage!
"I love that women are a lot more conscious of their sexuality, and it shows in what they're wearing," he continues. "A guy will be happy to wear the blue Y-fronts his mum gave him, not caring about who'll see them. Girls don't seem to mind that either. But I think if guys saw a girl in her huge, flesh-coloured knickers for the first time, they'd probably think, 'Oh God... are you for real?'"
Spending as much on lingerie as clothes
Brown Thomas lingerie buyer, Mary Mullin has also observed a noted increase in male customers. "Irish men are more than happy to browse the rails and are usually quite confident buying for their partners," she says.
By contrast, most Irish women assert that lingerie shopping is a highly personal pleasure that's best left outside the battle for one's heart (and loins). Jazz singer Maria Tecce says: "I choose my underwear to feel good, so greying knickers go in the bin regardless of what's happening in my relationship. I buy special lingerie to spoil myself a little in the simplest way. Buying a piece of lovely lingerie is like an instant mood lift."
Laura Mulcahy (31), a single, secondary school teacher working in Newbridge, Co Kildare, admits to being a "complete underwear snob" and will invest hundreds of euro on her lingerie, while buying her clothes on the high street. "I'd rather go without than buy lingerie of average quality that won't last," she admits. "I don't see it as that extravagant a spend. It's more about functionality, although I do like to buy it in lovely colours that aren't very practical. I always feel a bit smarter when everything is matching underneath my clothes, but it's also about knowing that my body shape is the best it can be. I'd be very judgmental on people who would scrimp on buying underwear."
As a fellow singleton, music publicist Bernie Divilly (27) thinks little of dropping €200 a pop on covetable lingerie: "When you work hard, it's a real luxury necessity, and you know you deserve it; it's like treating yourself to a dinner in Shanahan's on the Green when you could just as easily eat at Burger King."
A former employee of La Perla in Paris, Irish lingerie designer Caoimhe O'Dwyer says that continental women and high-end underwear have long made for rather comfortable bedfellows. "French and Italian women spend as much on their outerwear as their lingerie; almost €200 a go," she reveals. "It's a long-held part of their culture, but it's a concept Irish women are only getting their heads around now."
Let's face it, women may make all sorts of 'I'm worth it' noises when it comes to buying sexy underwear sets, but the trajectory of any modern Irish relationship can often be symbolised by women's underwear.
Observe how the ornate La Perla or What Katie Did sets are proudly sported during a couple's honeymoon stage; further down the line, when relations have cooled, greying cotton knickers hang shamelessly on the radiator.
Further muddying the unholy trinity between men, women and underwear is the advent of designer lingerie as a lifestyle accessory. Look no further than Agent Provocateur, a line roundly considered to be the zenith of classy erotica.
Their new Pirates Provocateur line -- featuring a scantily clad Helena Christensen in a Hogarth-inspired mass grope, will no doubt incite many a Jolly Roger (and Peter, and Mike, and John). On top of that, Christensen's shapely curves deliciously hint that God might not have wanted us humans to be naked after all (in all, it's not bad going for a girl who turns 40 on Christmas Day).
Agent Provocateur's pink-coated staff at Brown Thomas in Dublin report brisk business in the Titillation Lip and Nipple Balm, costing €31, and Christmas stocking fillers for literary types include a €26 strip-poker set disguised as a book. However, the jewel-encrusted whips may be a bridge too far for some Irish women of a certain age.
In 1970s/1980s Ireland, underwear -- largely white, gusseted and chaste, save for the odd bow or frill -- was functional to a fault. "I certainly haven't noticed as many ads for 'cross your heart' bras or '24-hour girdles' on TV any more," observes O'Doherty. "Just like personal stereos, underwear seems to have got smaller, sleeker and more of a fashion thing than a practical device."
And yet, oh irony of ironies, the cosseting, structured undergarments of the 1940s and 1950s have suddenly become en vogue with Ireland's upwardly mobile set. Thanks, in part, to the proliferation of burlesque clubs and nights across the land, the humble stockings and suspender belts -- once a worn-out cliché -- have been granted a new lease of life.
Sara Colohan, founder of Tassels burlesque club, reports "a huge return to the idea of underwear as outerwear. They're always beautifully finished, so there's a cheeky fun element and the basic 'sex' sentiment is softened. I honestly think men find that even sexier than seeing women topless," she adds. "Any time I wear them I certainly feel incredible -- even when I'm wearing a plain black wrap dress, I feel more confident."
It is precisely this newly fashionable demure sexuality that has finally brought both man and woman onto the same page.
"Agent Provocateur and Coco de Mer have opened up the possibility in Ireland that you can buy something sexy but 'acceptable' for your significant other," explains Colohan. "There's an element of fun and cheekiness there that has made it more tasteful. Oddly enough, I think if, a few years ago, a guy saw a woman in the whole 'retro-girdle' thing, he'd die of shock and think he was getting frisky with his grandmother. I think the past few years have changed the definition of what's sexy."
Of course, one development that neither man nor woman bargained on was the rise in popularity of shapewear. Spanx and 'magic knickers' have been hailed for their muffin-top- busting properties, but invite these unsightly numbers into the bedroom at your peril. A degree in acrobatics is needed to get these curve-enhancing numbers on, so you can imagine the choreography needed to remove them with any modicum of dignity.
"I'd be uncomfortable wearing Spanx, but I see the beauty of them," says Colohan. "I think if a guy got as far as to be in the position of getting the Spanx off, they wouldn't be running very far regardless!"
With Ireland facing the grim prospect of a recession, it would seem that underwear is one luxury women won't give up. Recently, Stella McCartney ventured down the lingerie route, and where the designers lead, the masses are sure to follow.
Make no mistake: there are still plenty of euro left in double-D cups.