We thought we'd seen the backside of them, but thongs are here again, with Gen Z poster girls such as Hailey Bieber and the Kardashians driving up sales. Fashion editor Harriet Walker investigates what's, um, behind the revival.
In summer 2016, Vogue described the stringy style of underwear known as a thong as "pre-crash, pre-smartphone and pre-Hillary for president". It had, the magazine said, been consigned to sartorial history: never again would women suffer its cheese-wire embrace in the pursuit of a VPL-free silhouette.
In light of what happened to Hillary Clinton's presidential bid later that year, it seems apt to point out that progress is never nailed on – and it looks, in 2022, very much as if thongs are back.
Yes, after almost a decade's grace in which high-waisted big knickers were so cool they were meant to be seen through your dress, pants are inching back towards the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny end of the spectrum instead.
This despite the underwear market undergoing a woke revolution in recent years that saw the size zero/32DD Victoria's Secret Angels knocked off their pedestals and replaced not just with more realistic-looking models, but also more comfortable styles. Thongs, Wonderbras and underwires generally: all were tossed on to the bonfire of the vanities ignited by Millennial Savonarolas who saw their smalls as part of a much bigger picture.
Thongs are a Gen Z thing. This cohort's interest in what now counts as vintage clothing has seen influencers and brands hail the return of "Y2K fashion". Those who remember it from the first time around might prefer to think of it as the Millennium Bug: stretchy bootcut trousers, baguette bags, slicked hair with giant hoop earrings and, of course, thongs. Dua Lipa, 26, has been spotted in one; likewise Bella Hadid, 25. In 2019, Hailey Bieber (then 23 and still a Baldwin) showed up to the prestigious Met Gala with a baby pink diamante thong matched to her scoop-back Alexander Wang column dress.
Bieber's look recalled Gillian Anderson's 2001 Oscars dress – worn with a mesh thong visible at the back (and with the care instructions label visible thereupon) because, when the actress tried on the gown at the last minute, her pubic hair showed through the front.
Thongs are also yet another Kardashian thing. Having popularised a style of shapewear known as the "butt-lifter" – think cycling shorts with the cheeks cut out – they have now thrown their weight behind (or their behinds behind) a full-blown G-string revival. Kylie Jenner wears them on Instagram, where she has 298 million followers. Kim, Kourtney and Kendall have all been papped in thong bikinis – a style very much suited to the klan's most famous assets – in the past few months.
Not only that, thongs seem to suit the moment as envisioned by some of Paris' top designers. Balenciaga's unisex version costs £150 ($300) and comes with a rainbow Gay Pride waistband. In October 2020, Kim Kardashian posed on Instagram in a low-cut open-back dress from 36-year-old Matthew M Williams' first collection for Givenchy – the house that gave the world Audrey Hepburn's classic LBD in Breakfast at Tiffany's now adorns them with the visible scarlet "T" of a thong. Fifteen years ago, this common enough sighting – and even then, common was the operative word – was known as a "whale tail". These days, it is something close to couture.
Emma Ilori, head of womenswear elevation at the designer boutique Flannels, says sales of thongs are up 40 per cent on the year.
"It's clear that daring lingerie and risque, exposed thongs are back," she says. "So we've bought heavily into Agent Provocateur this season to meet the demand for thongs."
The high street is following suit. M&S reports that sales of thongs have been rising consistently since 2019 – they now account for 14 per cent of pants sales, as opposed to fewer than one in every 10 pairs five years ago. The store has around a third more on sale this year than last, in line with the trend for tighter, more revealing clothes as the glamour-sapping pandemic draws to a close.
The thong's original raison d'etre was to banish the visible lines of underwear through clothing by eliminating the parts of pants that dug into the softer skin of the buttocks. (In fact, it was created in the Seventies by the swimwear designer Rudi Gernreich in response to the city of Los Angeles banning nude bathing.) However, like so many lifestyle signifiers, thongs became less about function than fashion the more women bought into them. By the Noughties, they were designed not to be invisibly smooth but to be seen, stringy straps peeping over the low-rise jeans of the millennium. The supercool New York designer Heron Preston revived exactly this look on the catwalk in 2019, mimicking Tom Ford's Gucci and Jean Paul Gaultier's shows in the late Nineties.
Back then, every independent young woman was in a thong whether her outfit required it or not. Paris Hilton wore them, but so did Monica Lewinsky. Bridget Jones' thong was an important plot point, with its pulling potential evaluated in stark contrast to what she, in the 2001 film, called "scary stomach-holding-in pants very popular with grannies". In the video for I'm a Slave 4 U the same year, Britney Spears wore a pink leather thong on top of her jeans like some madly sexed-up comic-book superhero.
In their early Noughties heyday, G-strings accounted for more than a third of knicker sales at Debenhams. Topshop and H&M used to sell three for a tenner, offering them up on racks by the colourful multitude, decked gaudily along an entire wall like pick-and-mix sweets. There were frilly ones and slogan ones, bejewelled versions and seamless varieties. There were high-waisted "support thongs" that offered to flatten your stomach while letting everything else hang out at the back, and minuscule T-strings that amounted to little more than a mesh triangle on a Mobius strip – perfect for the pink and glittery slit-to-the-waist Julien Macdonald gown that Kelly Brook wore in 2000 to the premiere of (checks notes) Snatch.
Because it felt innately frilly and funny, the G-string's role in the hyper-sexualisation of the young women who came of age and wore them to school during the era (hi!) went unnoticed. Ditto its mainstreaming of what we now understand to be porn culture: after all, the fully bare Hollywood bikini wax is the ebony to the thong's ivory. Pole dancing for fitness, skimpy clothing as a sign of self-assertion – these were tenets of what was, at the time, dubbed "thong feminism".
In 2002, UK catalogue retailer Argos was selling thongs for girls aged 9 to 16. By the time Britney's was captured in an upskirt shot during her turbulent 2007 phase, tastes had moved on to the French knickers, boy shorts and high-waisted Fifties pin-up pants of Dita von Teese and Katy Perry. When the crash came a year later, it was assumed that only strippers – whose business boomed during the Great Recession – were still wearing them. When they featured in Vogue in 2016 it was as an out-of-step museum piece, a scold's bridle for the nethers.
It stands to reason, then, that neither I nor any of my contemporaries want to wear thongs again. So why are those whose crevices have not yet endured them chafing at the opportunity?
"Retro fashion centres on a new generation discovering a look," says Susanna Cordner, archives manager at the London College of Fashion and curator of the V&A's 2016 Undressed exhibition. "They pick and choose their references and perhaps ignore the problematic connotations. I don't think it's a coincidence, but it could be unconscious."
Somebody pass these young women the Canesten. Is there – and I'm asking for a friend worried her knicker drawer is stuck in a fuddy-duddy rut – such a thing as a thong for grown-ups?
"Our customers find ours supercomfy and they like the seamless sides," says Jo Rossell, owner of lingerie brand Rossell England. Her thongs – organic jersey in shades of bordeaux, blush and apricot – are chic and minimal.
"Thongs never went away for us," she says. "It's about personal preference."
Different strokes for different folks, as they say. Or in this case, different ruts for different butts.
Written by: Harriet Walker
© The Times of London