Thongs On and Off the Runways, a History and Timeline

It’s summertime, and thoughts turn to the thong.

Years before Victoria’s Secret’s Angels hit the runway and Sisqó’s featured the sexy undergarment in “Thong Song,” the thong held a prominent place in various cultures, from ancient Egypt to feudal Japan.

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Loincloths, the earliest of which were made of sturdy, unforgiving leather, were the predecessors to the racy pieces that are worn today. King Tut, who ruled from 1333 B.C. to 1324 B.C., was apparently a fan: More than 100 pairs were found buried in his tomb, WWD reported in a story by Karyn Monget and Court Williams in 2008.

Eva Herzigova wearing white embellished Victoria's Secret body bare Deep-V, Victoria's Secret body bare shimmer thong, and feathered bolero (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 2021.

The origin of the word “thong” hails from the Old English word “twong,” meaning a leather cord that could be tightened or loosened. The thong’s use in modern times goes back to 1939. Historians believe it started when New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia ordered the city’s nude dancers to cover their most private parts during that year’s World’s Fair, reported WWD. Their resulting scandalous undies are still the uniform of choice for strippers today.

When retailer Frederick’s of Hollywood introduced French-style black lingerie to the U.S. market in 1946, the thong was considered among the naughtiest of items. Black lingerie was not widely available in mainstream America until the 1940s, said Linda LoRe, chief executive officer of Frederick’s in the 2008 WWD story. Even so, they sold, becoming a popular — if rarely mentioned — item in sex shops.

The thong is widely considered a symbol of sexual coming-of-age and this style of underwear continues to be a major point of cultural scrutiny.

The late Norman Katz, a veteran of the panties business who previously owned the now-defunct I. Appel and Myonne labels, said in the aforementioned 2008 WWD story, “It happened after the end of World War II. Men were coming home from battle, and women were extremely anxious to attract them. Everybody tried to make sexier underwear like G-strings and thongs. Then, we had a Baby Boom.”

Rudi Gernreich's unisex thong swimsuit.
Rudi Gernreich’s unisex thong swimsuit.

The thong’s popularity received a major boost in 1974 when designer Rudi Gernreich created the first modern thong bikini. When the booty was under attack via California legislation outlawing nude sunbathing, Gernreich came up with the thong swimsuit that provided coverage and a birthday suit-feel. The popularity expanded to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro where intermediate styles evolved, including string thongs and tangas, which barely cover the buttocks with V-shape fabric.

Still, while the thong thrived in the U.S. in sex shops and boutiques that specialized in erotic lingerie, bringing the skimpy undies to mainstream America was a major challenge, said Sergio Oxman, cofounder of Cosabella, in the 2008 WWD story. “It started as a cult with the young crowd in New York, Los Angeles…performers on Broadway and in Las Vegas.” But, he added, thongs didn’t really reach the mainstream wardrobe until the mid-1990s.

Gale Epstein, cofounder of Hanky Panky, told WWD in 2008, “At first there was a cultural resistance. It took a decade to break down the cultural barrier, because thongs were considered out of the mainstream.”

But the bad-girl stigma began to wane in the mid-1990s as thongs appeared in everything from high-voltage exposure in music videos to glossy pages of fashion magazines and the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, website and fashion extravaganzas.

Lingerie looks on fashion runways also were strong influences, as well as sexually liberated hit films such as “Basic Instinct,” “Striptease” and “Showgirls.”

Nick Graham, creator of the Joe Boxer brand, said in Monget and Williams’ 2008 WWD story, “What helped put the thong on the map in the U.S. was the explosion of lingerie in the fashion arena, beginning in the mid-’90s. It’s just like the bra. Before, you would never see a bra, but now people are openly flaunting bras and thongs.”

Word of mouth was also key in propelling the popularity of the thong. “I did a lot of marketing research, and I discovered that word of mouth was important in making the thong not only a fashion item, but an everyday item,” said Valeria Campello, CEO of Cosabella, back in 2008 to WWD.

Thongs in Pop Culture

In the 1980s, thong swimwear became very popular through TV shows such as “Baywatch,” in which many women were filmed wearing thong swimsuits. In 1980, Frederick’s of Hollywood started selling thongs. In the 1990s, thong underwear hit the mainstream and was sold as a practical undergarment to wear with slim-fit jeans so the wearer could avoid visible panty lines.

Pam Anderson in her signature, "Baywatch" one-piece.
Pam Anderson in her signature, “Baywatch” one-piece.

But perhaps the most publicity the thong ever received was in 1995 when White House intern Monica Lewinsky flashed President Clinton the straps of her thong underwear in what she described as a “small, subtle, flirtatious gesture.”

That same year, Victoria’s Secret held its first public runway show, led by models Stephanie Seymour and Rebecca Romijn, igniting a consumer thong frenzy.

In 1999, Sisqó released the “Thong Song,” which peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100. Some of the lyrics are “She had dumps like a truck, truck, truck/Thighs like what, what, what/All night long/Let me see that thong.” Thongs quickly became the fastest-growing underwear style in the category.

Sisqó performing Thong Song in 2000.
Sisqó performing in 2000.

Thongs really had their moment in the spotlight during the early 2000s when young female celebrities such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton showed off their thongs by wearing low-rise jeans that exposed them. In 2002, it was estimated that more than 120 million pairs of thong underwear were sold in the U.S. alone, a 200 percent increase in domestic units sold from 1998, according to Parade, an intimates brand.

In the 2000s, people wore thongs with low-cut hipsters and deliberately exposed them over the top of their trousers. According to a story in the Telegraph, thongs made up 31 percent of the women’s underwear market but by the late 2000s, the exposure of the thong above one’s trousers lost its popularity and the trend became wearing lower-riding thongs that didn’t show above trousers, except when bending or twisting.

In 2010, various retailers reported a major decline in thong sales, citing styles such as the boyshort as the new hot commodity. But by 2016, Vogue magazine declared “the thong is back.”

In 2014, pop singer Rihanna caused a stir when she wore a see-through dress that showed everything, including her thong.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 02:  (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains nudity.) Rihanna attends the 2014 CFDA fashion awards at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on June 2, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
Rihanna at the 2014 CFDA Fashion Awards.

These days, thongs continue to be a popular option for women. Skims, headed by Kim Kardashian, has developed something of a cult following because of the range of nude shades, their comfort and different thong styles offered. Spanx, as well, makes high-waisted thong underwear. Hanky Panky has a full range of thongs, including the Original Rise Thong and Low Rise Thong, which they’ve been making for more than 35 years, along with what they call the World’s Most Comfortable Thong, offering ultrasoft, stretchy and flattering thongs, including low-rise thongs, mid-rise thongs and high-rise thongs. And, Commando created a raw-cut thong of luxe, breathable European microfiber and constructed with raw-cut edges without elastic or taping to eliminate digs, bulges and panty lines.

“The thong reigns supreme at Commando,” said Kerry O’Brien, founder, designer and CEO. “Our original microfiber thong is queen and is still a bestseller today. The thong was originally viewed as the much-needed, albeit uncomfortable solution to visible panty lines. We changed that with our elastic-free, dig-free, raw-cut thong. That innovation can be found in many fabrications now, and is the solution we use in our bodysuit collection. We believe that comfort should never be sacrificed and comfort is the catalyst for confidence. If you are thinking about your underwear you are wearing the wrong underwear,” she said.

WWD reported in May that Victoria’s Secret will bring back its fashion show this fall, after a five-year hiatus from the runway.

In the past 12 months (ending April 2024), thong sales were at $948.4 million, up 9 percent over the past year, according to Circana’s Consumer Tracking data.

During the fall 2024 collections, thongs were evident across the board, as designers became obsessed with giving thongs a starring role in their collections. Thongs were not only reflected on the streets and front rows, but were evident on the runways of such designers as Marc Jacobs, The Blonds, Christian Cowan, LaQuan Smith and Puppets & Puppets.

Thongs: History and Timeline [PHOTOS]

Thongs: On and Off the Runways, a History and Timeline
Thongs: On and Off the Runways, a History and Timeline
Thongs: On and Off the Runways, a History and Timeline
Thongs: On and Off the Runways, a History and Timeline
Thongs: On and Off the Runways, a History and Timeline
Thongs: On and Off the Runways, a History and Timeline

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