Happy Birthday, Thong!

The Itty-Bitty Underwear, Once a Novelty, Now a Cultural Phenomenon

By Buck Wolf

Aug. 2, 2001 — It's time to honor the underwear that nearly brought down a presidency. It's the 20th anniversary of the thong.

When Frederick Mellinger began mass-marketing thong underwear — then known as "scanty panties" — back in August 1981, who knew it would become the fastest-growing segment of the multibillion-dollar women's under-apparel industry and a cultural phenomenon.

From Fifth Avenue to Kmart, ladies — and now gentlemen, too — can purchase these "unmentionables." The cheapies go for less than $15, while Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger can ask for $200 or more for theirs.

White House Thong Moment

The thong — a skimpy panty in front and a thin strap in the back — was just a novelty item back in 1981, something sold alongside crotchless and edible undies. But now we all know about "That thong th thong thong thong," as Sisqo sings.

The infamous Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky White House affair began with a steamy thong moment, according to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report. "In the course of flirting with [President Clinton]," the report states, "[Lewinsky] raised her jacket in the back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear."

Sure, they can be sexy. But many women say they've embraced the thong, sometimes known as "butt floss," in the never-ending quest to hide those visible panty lines. There is, of course, the "wedgie" factor. But what's a little discomfort in the name of looking good?

There's no doubt the everyday woman has embraced the thong. While only the daring don the thong in its beachwear form, as underwear, it has found its way into millions of women's wardrobes. Thong sales have more than doubled since 1997, while sales of regular panties have grown only about 10 percent, according to one fashion research group.

"These days, a woman comes into Frederick's of Hollywood and she buys maybe one corset. But she'll buy six, seven, eight thongs," says Frederick's spokeswoman-model Lee Ann Tweeden. "I can't even tell you the last time I wore full-bottom panties, and I think a lot of women who work everyday jobs in offices would say the same thing."