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IT SEEMED like such a good idea at the time. Buy the lady in your life some underwear for Christmas - she'll be happy, and you'll definitely be happy. But it didn't work out that way, did it? Now you're cowering in the lingerie department, not knowing what to buy, and certainly not knowing where to look. And this total humiliation could have been avoided if you'd just followed a few simple tips.

Most importantly, says Nicky Clayton, head of buying at the Queen's corsetire Rigby & Peller, you should buy what your wife or girlfriend would like, not what you would like them to wear. "Often we get men coming in and buying their wife or girlfriend a padded plunge bra and a G-string, and then she'll come in after Christmas to change them to an underwired bra and big knickers," she says.

What you should do before embarking on a trip to buy your partner new underwear, she adds, is to have a good look at her old stuff (though it's probably better to make sure that she's out before you start rummaging through her knicker drawer). What's her underwear personality? If everything in her drawer is white cotton, she's not going to thank you for a peephole bra and G-string combo in black lace (and vice versa).

It is also extremely unlikely that she has a drawerful of novelty underwear with 'amusing' slogans or cartoons emblazoned on her pants, yet many men consider these acceptable festive gifts. "Last Christmas my boyfriend gave me a cotton bra-and-pants set with 'Little Miss Naughty' on them," says Amy, a 24-year-old PA from Cupar. "They made me feel anything but. Even worse, I couldn't even wear the bra under any of my clothes because you could still see 'Little Miss Naughty' through the material. I think I wore them once."

Size is also vital. Check the labels on your partner's favourite bras and briefs or ask her sister or friend. There is nothing more depressing than being unable to squeeze into underwear that is too small - or, indeed, discovering that your partner thinks you're an extra-large when you are in fact a medium.

"A boyfriend gave me a black lace Dolce & Gabbana thong and corset with champagne-coloured ribbon," says Emily, a 27-year-old beautician from Edinburgh. "That was three years ago, and I've still got them in my drawer because they are so beautiful. The only trouble is, I have never worn them. As soon as I opened the package I knew that they were far too tiny, and I was too mortified even to try them on. We split up soon afterwards, though, so he never knew that he had wasted his money."

Once you're in possession of the necessary information, it's time to hit the shops. "As a rule of thumb, we advise purchasing something pretty, feminine and sexy," says Clayton. One in every three bras is bought at Marks & Spencer, and there is lots of lovely stuff there this Christmas. But Harvey Nichols or a boutique store might be seen as a better option by the special woman in your life.

When you're in the shop, don't be afraid to ask the assistants for advice (they've seen it all before) and don't be afraid to feel the material either. Prickly, scratchy, or anything so synthetic that it gives off sparks are a no-no. Silk, satin or cashmere will do the trick. When deciding on which shade to get, bear in mind that although fashion dictates that this spring's trends are feminine florals and bright colours, if everything in her wardrobe is monochrome she won't thank you for hot-pink pants.

Once you've made your purchase, don't fall at the final hurdle - make sure you get it nicely gift-wrapped. Part of the fun for the recipient is unwrapping a beautiful box tied up with a bow and digging the new underwear out of layers of tissue paper. Do not just shove the store bag into her hands on Christmas morning, even if the name emblazoned across it will let her know that the contents have cost you a week's wages.

But if all this sounds too much like a terrifying ordeal, don't panic. Nowadays you don't even have to brave the shops in person, as there is plenty of gorgeous stuff available to order online. On the Agent Provocateur website (www.agentprovocateur.com) you even get to see a mini film of Kate Moss in her scanties, which should cheer up the shopping process considerably. Other sites that are worth a look are www.freyalingerie.com (a particularly good bet if your partner is well endowed, as the stylish pieces here go up to a J cup); www.glamorousamorous.com, which is great for individual designer names (including Damaris, Miss Mandalay and Bulb); and www.figleaves.com, which has a massive selection of all types of lingerie, from the basic to the sensational.

Remember, too, that just by following these simple guidelines you will be streets ahead of most men. A friend who used to work in a trendy lingerie boutique recalls the time a famous Hollywood star came in to buy his girlfriend (who happens to be one of the most beautiful women in the world) some underwear for a gift. "While the chauffeur waited outside, he gathered up armfuls of underwear and divided them into two piles; those he liked and those he didn't," she recalls. "Unfortunately, he had really bad taste and ended up buying her an incredibly unsuitable slogan vest and a pair of boy shorts."

Which proves you can be an A-list actor buying for a goddess and still get it wrong. And you can be one of the most beautiful women in the world and still have to wear a vest with 'Hello Sailor' on it on Christmas morning just to keep your boyfriend happy.

Choosing the right underwear

For big busts

Miss Mandalay is a designer range specialising in flattering bras for large-chested women. The bras go up to a GG cup and are low in the middle with thin straps - look out for Midnight, the new black satin range. The more traditional Rigby & Peller (right) also produces beautifully made, if expensive, bras for the bigger bust. But it's money well spent, says Clare Thommen, of Edinburgh's lingerie boutique Boudiche. "When you're giving lingerie as a present, it's worth buying something special, as opposed to something she would buy herself." Match it with shorts or a full but low-waisted brief. For a budget buy, try Bravissimo's lingerie range.

For small busts

"Beau Bra (left) is an ideal range for flat-chested women - it has some gorgeous collections this Christmas, and with pretty detail you really focus on the lingerie - there are sparkles, black lace and a really cute suspender knicker," says Thommen.

Beware of buying giant gel-filled cleavage-boosters, as this could send out the wrong message. Instead, consider buying a night-dress or a camisole in luxurious silks, such as those by Spoylt, the range favoured by the cast of Desperate Housewives.

If you must choose red

Give the nylon crotchless panties a miss and pick a good-quality fabric, like this basque and Brazillian knickers from Marks & Spencer (right). "Certain brands specialise in making women feel feminine - try Aubade's Romantic Cosmos, Chantelle's Chantilly and Lola by Julianne," says Mark Patterson, merchandising director at Figleaves.com.

Best of the high street

The pick of the bunch for lingerie this season are Marks & Spencer, Topshop, Gap, Evans (above) and Oasis. All have pretty, playful underwear at affordable prices.

Thongs, g-strings or briefs?

Be guided by the style of the woman you are buying for. "If she finds thongs uncomfortable, there are plenty of other styles that look just as sexy," advises Clare Kearney, head of buying at www.figleaves.com. "Mimi Holliday's silk chiffon briefs are popular, and Aubade's briefs are always beautiful. But if you'd like to encourage her to try a thong, Hanky Panky's are said to be the most comfortable on the market." (Passionata thong and black briefs, left, both from Debenhams)

What lies beneath

(Far left) 'Little Miss Naughty' bra and briefs set, happily no longer available; (right) Triumph racerback bra, 18, and hipster briefs, 8, both at Jenners (0131 225 2442)


CORSET With boning and lace-up fastening, this will magically knock two to four inches off her waist measurement, depending on how tightly it's tied.

BASQUE More lace-up or hook fastenings, but with bra cups and a longer length, extending to the hips (detachable suspenders optional).

CINCHER/WASPIE Like a corset, but for the waist only; it gives a beautiful hourglass shape.

BUSTIER Shorter than a basque, this has one main function: to push up the breasts.

CAMISOLE A delicate vest with straps - some have built-in support, others are just pretty.

BALCONETTE A bra with half-cups, a push-up effect and wide straps. Designed to be seen.

HALF-CUP This has the straight bustline of a balconette, but without the extra oomph.

TRIANGLE A stylish choice, though not the most supportive option.

PLUNGE Perfect for wearing under low-cut tops.

PUSH-UP The one to choose for a great cleavage, with or without extra padding.

CLEAVAGE A combination of the plunge and the push-up. Need we say more?

BRIEF Can be high-waisted or low-waisted, but in general it has good front coverage.

FRENCH KNICKER Best in fabrics such as satin or lace, this extends down the hips to finish at the top of the legs. It's loose-fitting, feminine and an increasingly popular style.

BRAZILIAN No, not the wax - a brief that covers only half of the cheeks.

THONG The classic no-panty-line solution, this offers good side coverage while leaving cheeks bare.

G-STRING With minimum coverage, this has string sides and back with a small triangle at the front.

LOW-RISE This sits on or below the hips, unlike high-rise and full-rise briefs, which stop just below or above the navel.