Lingerie may be a popular stocking filler at Christmas, but Beau Papworth has been splashing out on underwear for herself throughout the pandemic.

“I don’t spend money on train tickets and my income hasn’t changed, so I’m fine to spend on whatever I want,” said the 25-year-old Milton Keynes-based PR assistant. Yet, Ms Papworth has shifted from buying sexy lingerie sets to a focus on comfort during lockdown. And like many consumers with more disposable income, she has been shopping online and spending more.

The $73bn global female underwear market has been a little more resilient during the pandemic than fashion generally: sales are expected to contract 13 per cent this year compared with a 16 per cent fall for the wider industry, according to Euromonitor. But there are fears that online sales are plateauing and that the pandemic-induced economic recession will crimp growth.

As an essential category, underwear has a high replacement rate but the pandemic has hastened shifts in buying habits and tastes that had left brands from US lingerie group Victoria’s Secret to UK high street chain Marks and Spencer struggling before coronavirus.

Victoria’s Secret has suffered from declining sales and brand value for years, dragging down the share price of its owner L Brands, which in May abandoned efforts to take it private. During the pandemic it closed 250 stores permanently.

The group describes itself as “the sexiest brand in the world” and early in the pandemic there was a surge in sexy lingerie purchases as people looked to indulge but that waned quickly, according to Euromonitor.

Soozie Jenkinson, head of design at M&S, the UK’s leading seller of ladies underwear with a 27 per cent share, said the shift was clear: “The big trends we have seen growing in importance for years have accelerated from March onwards, and the main one is comfort.”

M&S, which last month posted its first half-year loss in its 136-year history, noted a 157 per cent rise in sports bra online sales in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period last year, as women sought more relaxed styles. With stores closed, sales shifted online.

Bar chart of Annual revenues ($bn) showing Underwear sales had been growing steadily before the pandemic

Analysts stress, however, that the overall increase in digital spending during the pandemic has not been strong enough to offset the decline in bricks-and-mortar revenues. McKinsey does not expect lingerie sales to return to 2019 levels until the end of 2022, or early 2023.

Beyond the pandemic, analysts point to wider challenges for the sector. Department stores, a traditional place to buy branded lingerie, are struggling and attitudes to underwear styles and marketing have shifted. McKinsey analyst Achim Berg said brands attached to sexy lingerie had seen their appeal dissipate.

“We’ve moved away from the kind of bombshell focus of previous decades. Lingerie has democratised quite a bit,” he added.

Victoria’s Secret has struggled to adapt. In 2018, its marketing chief stepped down after a backlash over his comments that transgender models had no place in the brand’s iconic supermodel-studded fashion shows. A year later, the shows were scrapped as the lingerie group sought to address criticism its marketing objectified women and lacked diversity.

Then in February, L Brands’ billionaire founder Les Wexner stepped down as chairman amid concerns about the impact on the company’s reputation over his ties to the late paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and reports of widespread bullying and harassment at Victoria’s Secret.

The lingerie group has overhauled its management, recently appointing a new chief executive — its second in two years — and creative director. In September it agreed to a deal for a UK joint franchise with Next after its business there was put into administration.

Next, which has also signed a three-year tie-up with upmarket UK brand Ted Baker, has weathered the pandemic relatively well due to its more advanced ecommerce operations — an area its partners aim to exploit.

Collaborations with small independent brands allow large players to reach younger, more diverse audiences. “Large companies have brand recognition,” said Mr Berg. “Now they want to expand their third-party offering to tap into a stream of innovations.”

Digital sales and sexual wellbeing will be a focus for Ann Summers in the UK. The group, known for selling sex toys alongside lingerie, launched an insolvency process this month and while it plans no store closures it is stepping up efforts to reach digital consumers. It said online interest for its “sexpertise” guides had increased eleven-fold during the pandemic.

Savage X Fenty, the mid-range lingerie brand launched by singer Rihanna in 2018, has centred its efforts on online. It has built marketing around social media and focused sales on digital platforms such as Amazon. It has also been at the forefront of promoting body positivity and inclusivity, with a broad range of sizes for all body types — another core demand from consumers.

Analysts say the shifts to comfort and inclusivity, as well as sustainability, will endure. But they do expect a jump in sales of sexier lingerie when socialising and dating fully resume.

“Once the pandemic has come to an end,” said Mr Berg, “there will be a lot of partying, meaning a lot of occasions to buy lingerie.”