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The first women to wear thongs were not concerned about panty lines. That’s because they were not wearing pants. Or, indeed, any kind of clothing.
Now, to be fair, women weren’t the first people to wear thongs. Ancient thongs were around in Africa as early as 42,000 BCE and in Minoan and Mycean culture as early as 1570 BCE. Japanese men began wearing them for sumo wrestling as early as 250 CE, and they still wear them for that purpose today. However, those thongs were worn by men.
The female-friendly (or -unfriendly) version of the garment made its appearance in the 1939 World’s Fair. It wasn’t just a novelty item, as most of the gadgets at the World’s Fair would have been. It was a requirement. The mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, ordered nude dancers at the fair to cover up. Burlesque dancers at the time were savvy enough to realize that too much coverage would be a disservice to their profession. By creating a G-string, they were able to continue flaunting their butt cheeks while also technically obeying Mayor La Guardia’s dictate. The new garment was a far cry from the bloomers — which resembled boxers — that most women wore on a daily basis.
Women’s underwear soon became scantier, but for a long time thereafter, thongs remained the province of near-nude performers. They became slightly more well known in the 1970s, when Rudi Gernreich invented the thong bikini. It seemed like a perfect piece for a decade when everyone, not just burlesque performers, was encouraged to be sexy and get in touch with their sexuality. Little wonder, then, that by 1975 Jerry Hall was photographed wearing such a bikini. But people wear a lot of things to the beach that they wouldn’t wear in daily life. And many people wouldn’t even wear a thong bikini to the beach. While the thong bikinis took off in Latin culture, in America, they remained fairly scandalous.
Frederick’s of Hollywood begin selling thongs in the 1980s, but they were sold next to items like “edible underwear” and “crotchless panties.” They themselves were called “scanty panties.” So, they were not the kind of thing that you would just casually throw on under a pair of jeans. Unless you are the kind of person who regularly wears edible underwear under your jeans, in which case, you live your life, you be free.
Thongs were occasionally worn by performers like Cher, who made a provocative impression onstage in one in 1987. However, thongs didn’t go mainstream until the 1990s. And it wasn’t a celebrity who caused thongs to become a part of causal discourse. It was Monica Lewinsky.
In the course of revealing her affair with President Clinton, the Starr Report, published in 1998, noted that “In the course of flirting with [Bill Clinton] she raised her jacket in the back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear." This had the inadvertent consequence of making it clear that, at the time, many people did not know how thongs worked, exactly. In 1998, for instance, in the course of investigating the Starr Report, Slate “called a local Seattle lingerie boutique and was assured that thong bikini straps — unlike traditional bikini straps — often continue above the waistband of a woman's trousers.” She was, they went on to stress, not stripping out of her clothing to show off her body to the President.
To which anyone who lived through the early 2000s will reply “Yeah. Duh.”
Because, suddenly, it seemed that everyone was wearing a thong under their low-rise jeans. It was one of the mating rituals of the early aughts.
By 1999, the Wall Street Journal was declaring that the thong was now “naughty for nice people,” as evidenced by the fact that thongs were being sold, among other places, at J.Crew. They were marketed not as a sexy way to show off your butt, but as a way to wear new slim-fit knit pants or yoga pants. The poor vice president of Jockey claimed that their popularity was due to “Comfort. That's why she buys it.”
People did not generally buy his explanation. Fortune pointed out that the popularity of thongs “has little to do with concerns over wives and girlfriends having an unflattering silhouette.” ("Honey, please wear a thong. I can't bear to have you suffer the ridicule of unsightly panty lines.")
The sex appeal of thongs never disappeared, despite some manufacturers’ best attempts to claim people were buying them for practical reasons. After all, that same year, the singer Sisqo was demanding to “see that thong-tha-thong-thong-thong.” That sentiment seems to mesh poorly with the notion that women were wearing thongs to give the impression that their underwear was so seamless that it had melded into their body, like a Barbie doll’s.
By 2001, Frederick’s of Hollywood was celebrating the thong’s 20th anniversary. They claimed that 90 percent of all its underwear sales were thongs. Not so scanty anymore, huh?
By the next year, their popularity sparked moral outrage in places like Daytona Beach. The city said that anyone displaying more than a third of their buttocks in public would be arrested. People were equally furious that they were being sold to pre-teen girls by brands like Abercrombie & Fitch. Especially when those thongs were emblazoned with sayings like “eye candy” and “wink wink.” And, honestly, the controversy never stopped. As recently as 2013, parents were angry that the Victoria’s Secret brand Pink — which is targeted toward teenagers — sold a lacy thong that read “Call Me” on the front.
So, sorry, Mayor La Guardia. It seems the garment that was first used in America as an attempt to ward off controversy has provided us with decades worth of that very thing.