For a flimsy piece of fabric, thong underwear has had an outsized impact on fashion history. Fashion has always been political, but it seems like the garments worn by women have always made the biggest splash, like corsets, bikinis, or even when we started wearing pants. In this way, thongs are no exception, even though they weren’t initially meant for women at all.
Thongs as we know them have their roots in garments worn by men during ancient times. They’ve made periodic appearances in the wardrobes of many cultures across history, but they resurfaced in modernity when Western male athletes began wearing jock straps in the 19th century. Later, during the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, then-mayor Fiorello LaGuardia ordered that burlesque dancers not perform nude, and thongs quickly became a clever workaround.
After that, thongs slowly drifted into mainstream US culture by way of nudie mags and beachwear, the latter after Austrian fashion designer Rudi Gernreich debuted the thong swimsuit in the ’70s. Once thongs were adopted by entertainers like Cher in the following decades, the rest was history. By the time I was growing up in the 2000s, you could catch a glimpse of a thong on television just by watching MTV or tuning into the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
In fact, that particular lingerie brand played a central role in shaping my teenage conception of beauty, femininity and sex appeal (mostly for the worse, but that’s for a different essay). During those years, Victoria’s Secret was a beloved brand of suburban mall rats like my friends and me. The store represented an imagined path from girlhood to womanhood, as we graduated from the garish velour tracksuits and shimmery body mists to push-up bras — and our very first thongs.
It first occurred to me to buy one around the time I started to notice that social capital was important in high school, and there weren’t many ways to build it. Having an expensive wardrobe and a boyfriend seemed to be essential. Male attention was especially important to me, and it was more than clear that ‘cute’ and ‘pretty’ wouldn’t cut it. Now, ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ had a much higher premium, and I wanted to dress the part.
Back then, wearing a thong seemed like the ultimate symbol of female sexuality. I loved how they made tight pants fit seamlessly in public, or made their own seductive statement in private. When desperately crushing on some boy, I’d imagine him grabbing my bare ass under my skirt while I wore one at a party. Coinciding with the ‘tramp stamp’ era, a thong was yet another way to draw the eye to your lower back… that is, if you hiked it high enough to make a ‘whale tail’.
We sure loved our rhyme-y little metaphors, didn’t we?
Pop culture of that time only affirmed my reverence for the almighty thong. It was the aughts, after all, when visible thongs were practically part of the uniform for sex symbols like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. In 2000, American R&B artist Sisqó’s ‘Thong Song’ garnered him four Grammy nominations and global success for his rhapsodic admiration of the titular garment — and, of course, the women who wore them.
Any fan of the Canadian teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation can recall with ease the episode where Manny Santos struts through her high school’s hallways in a blue bedazzled thong and ultra-low-rise jeans, after her friend encouraged her to ‘change her image’ to avoid being perceived as ‘adorable’. Then there was Samantha’s pearl thong on Sex and the City, a gift from her client-turned-boyfriend Richard, who actually utters aloud that when they get home, he’ll give her ‘a pearl necklace to match’.
Back then, wearing a thong seemed like the ultimate symbol of female sexuality.
Luckily for my teachers and peers, I never found my own neon thong with which to scandalize my high school. On the momentous mall trip when my friends and I left Victoria’s Secret with actual lingerie for the first time, I’d chosen a basic grey cotton thong, one of few styles available in the seemingly-shameful XL. To be honest, I didn’t care much what it looked like, just how it made me feel: playfully naughty and fiercely feminine.
It’s entirely possible that I was brainwashed by entering adolescence right as thongs hit the peak of their cultural relevance. But it turns out, I actually find them to be comfier than briefs, as there’s less friction between thongs and the pants I wear over them. As I find myself nearing 30, I even still find them alluring. I like how thongs make me feel covered, yet bare. How they hide under clothes, unless they decide to sneak a peek. Maybe some of the rebellious energy from those World’s Fair dancers is still imbued in their legacy. Made you look!