When New York’s Henry S Lesher patented the first bra prototype back in 1859, little would he have imagined that innerwear would one day become a $30-billion industry. Nor would have the many others who improvised the design over the next century or so. Comfort and convenience remained the watchwords, and it wasn’t until the last decade of the 20th century that lingerie became associated with women’s confidence, sex appeal and market opportunity.

India took its time warming up to the trend, and today it’s not uncommon to see lingerie displayed prominently in retail outlets, luxury shopping destinations and international stores, besides of course, a burgeoning market online.

Not only are women buying more lingerie, now that it is available online, they also have more choices than ever before, says Richa Kar, founder of online lingerie retailer Zivame. They are gladly moving away from the inhibited shopping experience at stores to an online space that is rich with recommendations, choices and the promise of a right fit, she adds.

Contrast the more than 85 sizes available across brands at Zivame with the 12 basic sizes that ruled shelf space at the many small, discreet innerwear stores manned by nervous staff. Kar gets orders from all corners of the country — whether it’s Ambala, Shantiniketan, Kalimpong, Dharwad or even Port Blair. She uses India Post to deliver to far-flung locations, which account for about 6 per cent of her orders. Tier II and III cities are shopping furiously from her — from 15 per cent in 2012 they now make up a third of all transactions on Zivame.

Tarang Virulkar, who works for e-commerce company storeadda.com, regularly orders lingerie online. Living in Amravati, Maharashtra, she now has access to a wide range of brands and products with just a few clicks. “It reduces the time required for shopping, and is value for money.” Discounts and special offers are another big draw, says Virulkar, pointing to Zivame’s recent ‘Buy two for ₹300” offer.

But for every Virulkar who’s plunged into the Web with confidence, there is also an Anjali Rai who firmly refuses to buy lingerie online as she is wary she might end up buying the wrong size. “I prefer walking into my favourite neighbourhood store,” says this Indore resident.

Pegged at about ₹17,500 crore in 2012, the country’s lingerie market is tantalising for both domestic and international players, including Marks & Spencer, Jolidon, Parah, Christies, Hanes, WonderBra, Triumph, Ultimo, Lovable, Plié, Jockey, Amanté, Penny, Bw!tch, Enamor, Hollywood Fashion Secrets and many more brands. Market research firm Euromonitor expects the market to grow 54 per cent by 2017.

Sensing this opportunity, Akshay Mahendran set up innerwear company Daiki Brands in 2009. “Although the market was fragmented, we saw there was big potential in the premium and mass market segments,” he says. Four years later, he has been proved right.

His confidence stems from the fact that more women are earning now and have disposable incomes in both semi-urban and urban centres. “And global trends are widely followed and understood …innerwear is no longer a taboo purchase,” he says.

Agreeing with this, Venu Nair, managing director of Marks & Spencer Reliance India, is bullish about the Indian lingerie market. Lingerie now accounts for over a fifth of Marks & Spencer’s sales in India, and it sold 33 per cent more during the first half of this fiscal.

“Women are willing to spend money on feeling good,” says Kar. “Lingerie has now become a fashion accessory. Our repeat customers buy four to five times in a year, with sales peaking during festivals.” Her website features a different product line each week. “Brands are waking up, offering smaller but more frequent lines — a lot more colours, a lot more focus on fit and sizes,” she says.

Mahendran concurs. Even until three years ago, retailers wanted only black, white and skin colours. “Today, white is the slowest-moving category. Colours and funky patterns are in,” he says. This demand for newer styles is sweet music to multinational retailer Marks & Spencer. “Our extensive breadth of lingerie styles, shapes and sizes sets us apart from the competition. We also offer a host of clever product innovations,” says Nair.

From shy and unsure even a few years ago, today’s lingerie buyer — even in small towns and villages — knows her noodle strap from her multi-way bras. And she sure is in the mood to indulge.