Style Retrospective: That Thong-Tha-Thong-Thong-Thong

The practical purpose of thong underwear, of course, is to avoid visible panty line or VPL that happens with fitted garments or shear fabrics. But once upon a time, in the not so distant past, the thong panty was celebrated and even flaunted.  Let’s look back at the rise and fall of the thong.

Technically, the thong has been around for centuries. However, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich is credited with introducing the modern thong in 1974 when he designed a thong bikini in response to a ban on nude sunbathing by Los Angeles City Council.  

The next year, Helmut Lang photographed models Lisa Taylor and Jerry Hall wearing Gernreich’s one-piece black thongs in a now iconic photograph.

Models Lisa Taylor and Jerry Hall wear Rudi Gernreich swimsuit

In the 1980s and early mid-90s,  a high-cut leg thong swimsuit becomes popular for the more daring and butt confident.

An ad from the 1980s

It wasn’t until the late 1990s during the Clinton sex scandal that “thong panties” became a word bandied about by people in everyday conversation.

Supposedly, Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky began after she sent the message that she was into him, by flashing him the straps of her thong underwear. A forbidden, sexy image filled our collective brains and our interest was piqued.

Headlines from the late 1990s

Our national thong obsession was born.

In 1998 Gucci sent models down the runway with thong straps proudly peering from the tops of skirts and pants. Some even included a rhinestone G for Gucci on the hip straps.

Tom Ford’s spring 1998 Gucci show and ad

By 1999 the thong had become so trendy that rapper Sisqó saw fit to memorialize this tiny scrap of fabric in a song.

The newness and naughtiness of the thong combined with the popularity of low rise jeans and more body-conscious silhouettes, made this the underwear choice of the “new millennium.”

The Genesis Of Whale Tails

By the early 2000s, the thong had become so beloved that showing it off became a risqué trend. Suddenly “whale tails,” the Y-shaped waistband of a thong, started slipping out flirtatiously from low-rise pants and skirts  across the country.

Photo source:
Gillian Anderson at the 2001 Vanity Fair Oscar party

However, by the end of the decade, visible thong and whale tails seemed tired. A 2010 article in Cosmo summed it up with the title “The Thong is Dead!” A dip in sales of low rise pants coupled with alternative underwear styles that promised no VPL, further ushered in the decline of the thong’s popularity.

Suddenly the cheeky underwear choice (pun fully intended) was the boy short. An undeniably more comfortable style of underwear than the thong. By 2010, in some lingerie markets, sales of boy short panties doubled thong sales.

But times have changed and 2020 is now thisclose away. So have thongs been in fashion purgatory long enough to make a mainstream comeback? Or did all the overexposure during the whale tail era ruin things?

An article in Vogue last September declared “the exposed thong is back.”

Meanwhile, a new article in Metro claims low-rise underwear is the next hot trend (at least in Japan, for now).

Credit: Predator Rat/Jam Press

Who knows what the hot panty choice of the 2020s will be. Visible panty lines? Granny panties? Exposed butt cracks? Whatever it is, let’s just hope it’s wedgie proof.

Cover image source:

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