It's holiday shopping season at the Victoria's Secret lingerie shop at Wheaton Plaza, and Kris Peterson, 13, stands mute, a dazed manchild in a promised land of scarlet lace bustiers, black garter belts and fuchsia satin demi-bras.

"It's, it's -- different here," stammers Kris, unhinged by the visions dancing in his head. The eighth grader at Eastern Intermediate School in Silver Spring is only here -- he wants this made absolutely clear -- because his mother, Kristy, stopped in to browse.

What makes it so different? "It's got a lot of -- garments," he bleats. "I didn't know a store would have these, these things. It's very strange."

To enter Victoria's -- the store whose British-gentry pretensions made sexy lingerie respectable -- is to stumble into a bower of femininity, overflowing with silk, satin and lace in every shade, redolent with the fruit-flower-herb-spice scents of perfumes, lotions and sachets.

This Christmas, men are entering it like crazy. At lunchtime, "between 12 and 2," says manager Jeannie Kerasiotes, 21, "the place is swamped with men."

Forget the stereotype of unromantic men slipping steak knife sets into their sweethearts' stockings. Today's man is just as likely to stuff it with a jade push-up bustier, with garters. And according to some who should know, many have no qualms about asking a salesperson to help him locate it.

"The age of embarrassment has passed," says Gladys Cohen, manager of Les Gals Hosiery, an undergarment store on Connecticut Avenue downtown. "Some guys will come right out and just tell you, 'I want crotchless panties and a body stocking.' "

Among the unfazed at Victoria's Secret this week: construction company owner Dick McCracken, 59 ("Embarrassed? Oh please ... all women wear underwear"); Gaithersburg attorney Scott Strickler, 29 ("Embarrassed? In this day and age?"); and Bill Kohl, 29, of Silver Spring ("Embarrassed? Not really. There's a Victoria's Secret in every mall").

Unconvinced? You should be. Keep Kohl talking and the telephone technician -- who's looking for something sexy for his seven-months-pregnant wife, Darlene, "to wear when she's not pregnant" -- starts to, well, blush.

Shopping here "feels like people can see something that's personal, between you and your wife," he admits. "You feel like everybody knows what you do behind closed doors."

He isn't alone. Despite the store's undeniable popularity among men and women some guys just can't handle it. Even in these steamy times, some grown men tremble at the thought of strangers knowing that they like to see their wives in sexy underwear!

One male customer at the Wheaton store, upon learning The Post was conducting interviews, did a silent, 180-degree turn, beating a hasty retreat out the double doors. Another who lives blocks from the Lake Forest store, says Kerasiotes, drove miles to Wheaton just to avoid the possibility of being seen in the store by his neighbors. Some guys ask saleswomen if there's an alternative to the store's cream-colored bag with the Victoria's logo -- "Don't you have a plain brown one?"

Others gather outside the store, surreptitiously checking out the number of male customers, says Kerasiotes. Once they ascertain that enough guys are inside, they rush in en masse. "It's a team thing," she explains. "They conspire to shop together."

The most embarrassed group of all? "The ones you see in here getting G-strings and teddies for their girlfriends and who the next day you see with their wives, buying cotton flannel nightgowns."

Many, however, are as nonchalant as record distributor Steven Lorber. He has come shopping for wife Nancy Duke, complete with a list -- "See, here's her bra size, she's 5 feet 11 inches, it even explains she has a long torso" -- and his "lingerie consultant," pal Robbie White.

White is pushing for a red lace chemise, but Lorber's leaning toward a robe. "It's more elegant," he explains. "Plus, {White} has more of a fantasy about my wife than I do."

Both men are Victoria's devotees, largely because of the store's popular catalogue, filled with photos of voluptuous, nearly nude women lounging on overstuffed chairs as they sip tea. Each catalogue's arrival, says Lorber, is the "highlight of my day. ... I'm a patron of the arts."

For young Kris Peterson, the place is merely confusing. "I don't see the purpose of wearing little flowers on underwear," he says, "when nobody's going to see it."

His mother smiles. "What if someone did see it? When you're grown up, would you want your girlfriend to wear plain white underwear or frilly?"

He stares at her. "White."

She laughs. "We'll check with you in five years."

Or 40. Engineer Tom Underwood, bless him, is looking at see-through teddies and lace demi-bras for his wife of 28 years, Suzanne. "We have a super relationship," says Underwood, 52, needlessly. "We go through the catalogue together, she turns the pages. ... She always likes what I buy. Nothing gets returned."

Freelance writer and photographer Michael Byles, who has his 2-year-old daughter Theresa in tow, is philosophical about his penchant for sexy lingerie. "I don't buy it for me or for my wife -- it's for the relationship," he says. "It's like salad -- it's good for you and you'd like to have it every day. Changing the dressing makes it more interesting."

He grins. "I'll tell you a secret. Three years ago, I bought my wife about $500 of really vulgar underwear -- I couldn't decide so I bought everything. Five months later -- " he eyes Theresa significantly.

"Let's just say it made me more anxious to get to the salad."

So what about women? Are they as anxious to buy sweet-nothing underthings for their lovers as guys seem to be?

Ask Marion Stecklow of Kensington, who has just wandered into the men's underwear aisle at Hecht's. She pushes her stroller-strapped daughter Sarah past the Calvin Klein high-cut briefs, past the Pierre Cardin striped G-string underpants. She stops in front of the Jockeys. White cotton. Boring. Perfect.

"The fact is, when a man buys lingerie, it's sex-oriented," said Stecklow, 42. "When a woman buys it for her husband, it's practical. I once bought my husband a pair of silk boxer shorts at Victoria's Secret."

She sighs, picking up the three-pack.

"They're at the bottom of his drawer."