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Cracking Open the History of the Thong

Millennia before it was making you uncomfortable at work—and before it rose to pop culture prominence—the thong graced the bodies of our oldest ancestors.
Screenshot via YouTube

What does Lady Gaga have in common with ancient civilization? Sisqó wanted to see it all night long, Victoria's Secret loves to sell it, and many of us have spent hours yanking on them. Yes, we're talking about thong underwear.

This seemingly modern marvel of minimalist undergarments has a history dating back to ancient times—when thongs were likely even less comfortable than they are these days. Here's a look at throngs of thongs from ancient Greece to the present day.


Let me see that loincloth

The loincloth is thought to be the precursor of the thong (and all underwear). The barely-there flap of cloth, which covers the buttocks and genitalia, was initially only worn by men. Probably the most famous loincloth in the world (excluding fiction) belongs to Otzi the Iceman, an exceptionally well-preserved corpse from the 3100s B.C. When he was found in the Italian Alps in 1991, Otzi was fully regaled in his very own loincloth, which just might be the most famous pair of underwear in the world. Otzi and his under-trappings can now be found on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy.

Proper thong underwear showed up in various places around the globe in later centuries, again worn exclusively by men. Wearers of ancient thongs appeared throughout Asia, Africa, and temperate parts of Europe "as far back as 42,000 B.C.E.," according to World Clothing and Fashion: Thousands of years ago, San Bushman in various parts of Africa fashioned thongs from animal skin that were held onto their wastes with cord or sinew. The practice proliferated throughout the world for millennia, extending into ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and ancient Japan.

A Japanese print of a ferryman wringing out his loincloth. Image via Wikipedia.

A stripper's tease

But let's get to what we think of when we think about a thong: a tiny, sexy, and perhaps somewhat itchy piece of (mostly women's) undies. The contemporary thong first made an appearance at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, but it wasn't revealed as a new-fangled invention being shown off among the world's up and coming inventors. Rather, the thong was forced into creation by then-mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who stipulated that nude dancers had to cover up their "private parts" during the World's Fair. In a cheeky move toward compliance, the dancers donned thongs, which covered just enough risky business to be acceptable by the apparently prudish Mr. La Guardia.

Read more: String Theories: How the Tampon Came to Be


"Must have been invented by a man"

Thongs are frequently associated with wedgies; they're not especially comfortable, nor are they necessarily designed to be. While nude dancers were the first to wear the modern thong, some accounts say that thongs didn't hit the fashion scene in earnest until 1981, when Frederick Mellinger began selling "scanty panties" to women.

If the name Frederick Mellinger sounds familiar, it's most likely because someone in your home received Frederick's of Hollywood lingerie catalogues while you were growing up. The iconic lingerie and intimate apparel brand dates all the way back to the 1940s, when Mellinger invented the push-up bra. The man indeed had an eye for creating game-changing undergarments.

Frederick's of Hollywood brought thongs to the masses, but Mellinger did not in fact patent the first thong. That distinct honor belongs to designer Rudi Gernreich, who patented the barely-there undies in 1979. This same man also brought us topless swimsuits for women.

Pop thongs

Thongs eventually became a fixture of pop culture and mass fashion. Sisqo's 1999 hit, "Thong Song," rose to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2000, with lyrics like, "All night long, let me see that thong." Ten years later, hip-hop artist Pitbull came out with "No Thongs." Even Sia dropped a song with thong-themed lyrics in 2016—in "Sweet Design," where the singer samples Sisqo's hook.

Another significant pop culture moment for the thong came with the "pearl thong," which cause a literal sensation in 2013 when underwear designer Bracli unleashed the pearl thong onto the world. While the company did not explicitly state the purpose of this specific garment, the public quickly picked up on the fact that they were meant to double as a sex toy for women. Bracli still describes this sensuous pair of thongs as "Designed for the passionate at heart." Notably, all sales of the pearl thong are final.

Although thong sales have seen a slight drop in recent years—in 2015, the New York Times cited statistics from the research company NPD Group, which showed that thong underwear sales had fallen 7 percent between 2014 and 2015—this type of underwear is unlikely to disappear from panty collections anytime soon. Several writers declared 2014 "the year of the butt," and that trend seems unlikely to change anytime soon. From Nicki Minaj's iconic Anaconda album cover, to Rihanna's denim thong, to Miley Cyrus' weed leaf thong leotard, it seems the historic undergarment's influence has yet to wane.