Often when a relationship is over we are left with little tangible to remember it by. Few young people I know write letters: texts and emails are deleted in anger, and what might once have been put down in pen on paper is now said lazily and forgettably over Skype or in Facebook messages. The photographs that commemorate a romance are digital these days, and are stored on a cloud, and accessing them, early on in the aftermath, is like opening a wound.
But we have our memories and they are precious. The scarf she gave you can trigger them, or returning to a restaurant where once you laughed and reached for the other’s hand across the table and ordered the bill in a rush. The presents exchanged with people we have cared about remain, unless the acrimony is such that the scarf they gave you for Christmas brings more chill than warmth.
Books with inscriptions, for me, cannot be given away. Even books that I loathe and that lurk nearly hidden in my library can’t find new homes. I have a book on cricket that has followed me since school. I hate books on cricket even more than I hate cricket itself, but it was given to me by a teacher. The book is an emblem not of the sport but of an early and important friendship, my time at school, and of a kind man who I really must write to one of these days.
Romantic gifts are the most intimate, surpassing in some ways those given to and received from family. Unless we have a whiff of the Marquess of Bath about us, there is only one person we can give lingerie to, and lingerie is unique in that when we give it, we hope that there is only one person who will see it on. And then when the relationship is over, we will surely never see it again, and wonder, on cold nights over pizza for one, who might be seeing it now. Lingerie is a conditional gift, even if this is unsaid. Lingerie is a gift that is not really a gift at all, because that lacy smallness hides selfishness.
This Christmas my bank manager will get a Diptyque candle and a card that will contain the words ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. My father is getting an 18th-century pamphlet that includes a recipe for the mercury cure. And my girlfriend will get, among other things, underwear. Gifts should, where appropriate, be deeply personal. Were I to give the lingerie to my bank manager, a candle to my dad, and the mercury cure document to my girlfriend, it would start to become a Christmas tale without a redemptive ending.
We in Britain are good at making lingerie. Agent Provocateur is a British brand that now has stores all over the world. Shopping there is a pleasure, with just the right sense of schoolboy naughtiness to the place. The bell that rings when you open the door, the drawers that are opened by girls in pink 1950s button-up dresses, and then the bras and panties in the black tissue in the ribboned box in the bag that you leave with — it all feels special and slightly secret.
Carrying the bag feels different too. The eyes on the tube that glance at it make an assumption: that we have someone, that we love and are loved. Lingerie is charged with intent and anticipation and buying it is part of its many pleasures, just as I imagine receiving it and wearing it have their own unique kind of excitement (one that I, as a man of pedestrian nocturnal tastes, have never experienced).
Myla is another great British lingerie success story that started in Notting Hill and is another international British export. And there are lots of smaller companies making things tailored to different tastes. Rigby & Peller, the oldest and most traditional of the British lingerie brands, has a royal warrant. The slightly vulgar incarnation of Ann Summers and the designer ranges at M&S are testament to the democratic luxury of our love affair with lingerie — as well as being retail proclamations of our actual love affairs.
The assumption in giving lingerie is that it is something that you’ll both enjoy, like the film you are planning to see together, or the trip you’ll take next weekend. The art of buying girls underwear, however, is that you buy something that you think they will like, not just something you’ll like. Be subtle about it. Attempting to dress your Madonna like a whore will likely leave you spending Christmas alone. The politics of underwear-giving is delicate, and the inference that this present might be enjoyed by you both should be unspoken. State it or insist on it or ask for all of it back when the relationship is over and you miss the point. The beauty of lingerie is that is celebrates romantic love, its urgency and excitements, or the expectation of love waiting round the corner. When it has been run through the wash enough, lingerie, like many a love affair, disappears. And we must remember that for those of us who aren’t married, it might just be for Christmas.