Thongs Unter Alles
By Jennifer Bensko

(FORTUNE Magazine) – When mighty forces collide, the unexpected often results. Take, on the one hand, the presidency of the United States, and on the other, the thong. When Monica Lewinsky gave Bill Clinton a glimpse of her garment on the evening of Nov. 15, 1995, the most powerful man in the world was suddenly on the road to impeachment. The thong--once the Starr report was published--began a climb to lingerie superstardom.

In the post-Clinton era, the thong has gone from presidential footnote to wardrobe staple rapidly--but stealthily. Underwear, after all, is the "only business you can't see," says Jim Noble, senior vice president for men's and women's merchandising at Jockey. Today, says Suzette Bilotti, Jockey's merchandise manager for intimates, "thongs are everywhere. Thongs are staples. They're mainstream."

Victoria's Secret sold 20 million last year. Frederick's of Hollywood says thongs accounted for 90% of its total panty sales in 2001. Sara Lee (yes, the same people who make cheesecake) last year added thongs to the lingerie line it sells exclusively at Wal-Mart. Altogether, 123 million thongs were sold in the U.S. last year, more than double the number sold in 1998, the year of the Starr report, according to NPD, a provider of market information for the fashion industry. "What Monica did was make 'thong' a household word," says NPD co-president Marshal Cohen.

Walk down any busy street, and you are, most likely, surrounded by an astonishing variety of thongs you can't see. They come in almost any size--Just My Size sells thongs that will fit up to a 64-inch hip. Bali offers a "shaper" for those concerned about tummy bulge. There are even maternity thongs. If you're learning Italian and need a calendar, La Perla offers a seven-days-of-the-week set (Italians have no Puritan hang-ups about sewing DOMENICA on a pair of racy red underpants).

What has turned the good old sinful G-string--available to consumers since Frederick's of Hollywood introduced the Scanty Panty to the U.S. market in 1981--into a respectable, everyday wardrobe item? "Comfort," says Noble, with great sincerity. "That's why she buys it. Or he buys it."

To be sure, the industry has invested a lot of effort in developing flat seams and heat-sealed labels to avoid irritation. But many people like donning a thong about as much as flossing. What is their motivation?

The indignity of panty lines, industry spokespersons say. Also the arrival of low-rise jeans. Says Bilotti: "We've introduced more thongs in the last three seasons than we've ever had before in our lines." Even tweens are plunking down baby-sitting money for starter thongs.

Another factor in the thong boom may be that men seem to like them. Apparently this has little to do with concerns over wives and girlfriends having an unflattering silhouette. ("Honey, please wear a thong. I can't bear to have you suffer the ridicule of unsightly panty lines.") La Perla--which sells thongs priced from $60 to $140--says over 75% of the purchases men make at its stores are thongs. Victoria's Secret sells a holiday thong with detachable jingle bells and another that plays a Christmas medley when a strategically placed snowflake is pressed.

But turnabout is always fair play, and guess what? "Women buy most of men's underwear; it's a proven fact," says Jockey's Noble. So gentlemen, know this: Your underwear universe has just expanded. Jockey's thong in its Next to Nothing line for men has been out about a year. Though final stats aren't in, it's selling as well as other traditional silhouettes in that brand, a spokesman says. So any day now, you too may become part of the historic change brought about in this great democracy by the Starr report. We'll be watching.