Inside the potpourri-scented interiors of Victoria's Secret, Armin Sahba looks painfully out of place among the wisps of lace and satin lingerie.
The 18-year-old Fountain Valley resident stands in his blue jeans and baseball cap shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot, hardly glancing at the merchandise. Instead, he casts furtive looks to see who might be looking at him.
"It's embarrassing," Sahba says, as he heads for safer ground in the Westminster Mall.
"You're looking at underwear," he says. "They might think you're a pervert."
Still, Sahba plans to return for a second visit.
"My girlfriend wants me to get her something," he says, "but I have to work up the guts to go in and get it."
As Christmas nears, lingerie shops fill up with men, many bearing the same pained expression as Sahba while they pick their way through the garters and teddies. Some shuffle shamefaced through the perfumed boudoirs with hands stuffed in their pockets, not daring to touch any of the undergarments.
Their presence in the stores helps make Christmas the biggest sales period of the year for lingerie, topping even Valentine's Day, according to Orange County shop owners. So popular has fancy underwear become with women--and men--that such trips into foreign and feminine territory have become a necessity.
"It's frightening," says Jim, a husky, 30-something man who does not look like he scares easily. Too embarrassed to use his full name, he lasts only minutes among the racy unmentionables at Frederick's of Hollywood before bolting out into Westminster Mall.
"It makes you uneasy," he says. "I'm turning red already."
Lingerie makes him blush, he says, because "it's not a macho kind of thing."
"But my girlfriend likes that kind of stuff," he says. " I like that kind of stuff. I bought her something here last year, so I went through the same trauma."
Shop owners say they sometimes see men pace back and forth outside their stores before they work up the courage to come inside.
"I've had a lot of men tell me they had to have a couple of drinks before they came in," says Janice Frydrychowski, who owns Fatal Attraction Lingerie & More in Dana Point with husband Dan Heredia.
Their initial uneasiness usually wears off when they see other men browsing through the bras, according to Mima Ransom, owner of Mima's Lingerie at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.
"They're darling. They come in a little shy, but once they're here they start to relax," she says. "When there are four or five of them, they're like kids in a candy shop."
Not all men turn red at the sight of a teddy.
Cliff Query of Garden Grove has no qualms about rummaging through the racks of garters and G-strings at Frederick's.
"I'll take one of everything," he announces as he searches for his wife's Christmas present. She has issued him a list calling for a teddy, nightie, bra and panties right below more practical gifts such as a "new refrigerator."
"Everybody wears underwear," Query says. "It's silly to get embarrassed."
He came away from the shop bearing a see-through lace baby doll trimmed with a white boa, a lacy merry widow with matching garters, and his and her G-strings made of red velvet with jingle bells attached.
"I'm not going to tell her I got one for myself," he says. "I'm just going to surprise her."
Not all men know their way around lingerie the way Query does. For them, much of the merchandise remains a mystery.
"Sometimes they pick things off the rack and ask: 'What is this garment used for?' " Frydrychowski says. "Or they'll pick up a G-string and ask: 'Where does this go?' "
"Many men are familiar with the word teddy and use it to describe everything in the store," she says. "I've learned a teddy might mean a camisole, tap pants, a nightie or just about anything."
They also have trouble picking lingerie in the right size. One customer bought his wife a size 32D bra from Victoria' Secret. She turned out to be a size 36B.
Many describe their wives as "average" and only further questioning by a wise salesclerk will reveal she has unusual proportions.
"They'll look at someone who's 5 feet 2, and say: 'She's about your size,' when she's really 5 feet 9. It's really cute," Ransom says.
They tend not to notice if their mates have some excess weight that might test the limits of a tiny teddy.
"Most are madly in love with their ladies and don't see them from that point of view," Ransom says.
Hugh Gilbert of Canyon Lake knows what can happen when men pick the wrong size negligee.
"My problem is I always buy things too small because they look lousy when they're too big," says Gilbert, as he browses through Victoria's Secret in South Coast Plaza.
"I'll buy her something sheer," he says, "then she ends up bringing it back and not getting anything like what I wanted."
Salesclerks often make special efforts to coddle their more helpless customers, at times lavishing them with the kind of personal attention not often seen in stores.