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Image from The Ultimate Angels, Byron Newman (1981)

Thonging – an excerpt from Natasha Stagg’s essay collection, Sleeveless

The writer and Dazed contributor’s book examines this decade’s changing dynamics of sex, power, and fashion – here, she considers the humble, hardcore thong

Taken from the autumn/winter 2019 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here.

Like all studies of fashion, the thong is intrinsically connected to the history of humanity. Although the thong lies beneath the thinking behind so many historical moments, it is academically underrepresented. As goes its popularity, the thong has suffered ebbs and flows. The very form of the garment brings up anxiety: it relies on oppositional tugging to assume its preferred shape.

The origin of underwear is a disputed topic, the origin of the thong even further disputed. In the Bible, Eve’s first bite into forbidden fruit summoned a fig leaf, which logically must have been tied to the wearer. In most cultures, a type of loincloth originated before a more complicated brief or bikini pattern. Anthropologically speaking, the image of the loincloth is synced with the barbarism imagined by European voyagers. Slaves and servants in Europe and in Euro-colonised countries wore loincloths to display subservience, even though the loincloth was originally a functional garment in locales where the buttocks were no more taboo a display than the legs.

The Japanese fundoshi, for example, was originally the only style of underwear worn in Japan and later became the classic garment of powerful warriors – samurai and sumo wrestlers. It is still worn by male citizens during traditional ceremonies. The fundoshi loincloth comes in a few forms, including a newer female version, and according to the Tokyo Times, made a comeback in the last decade as “power underwear”.

Professor Otto Steinmayer says the reason behind a lack of research in the area of eastern undergarments is the westerner’s lack of understanding of the loincloth, due to personal history. In his essay, “The Loincloth of Borneo”, he refers to European men’s dress as “Arctic” and inherited from the Roman style of trousers and shirt. “The only thing in Europe which resembles (the loincloth) is underpants, a garment that has a history of scarcely a thousand years and whose dignity and consequent aesthetic value has been nil. Europeans have always considered the loincloth an immodest garment.”

“Someone once said to me, ‘A thong is like a railroad between cultural centres,” meaning for bacteria, an image I can’t forget” – Natasha Stagg

This is of course because of what it leaves bare. Most cultures have at one point come up with a standardised shame concerning the nakedness of genitalia, but, Steinmayer continues, “It seems to be a peculiarly western trait to feel equal shame about the buttocks, probably from a fear of homosexuality, an anxiety which also seems to grow with civilisation.”

But the thong has come to represent more than primitivising a culture’s dress. A thong bathing suit has become representative of air-headed hyper-sexualisation. The question of whether a feminist can wear a thong can be, according to writers Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, “a metaphor for the generation gap between older women’s feminism and younger women’s,” (who write) in their essay, “The Number One Question about Feminism”:

“At the 150 or so colleges where we have spoken since our book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future hit the shelves, the ‘Can I wear a thong?’ type of query is one of the most popular. On the surface, the statement feeds into stereotypes about young women, seeming to reveal that they are oddly obsessed with body image and shopping issues and their personal lives, rather than politics and revolution. On a different level, however, the question is symbolic of young people’s relationship to feminism: meaning that the relationship is often personal, invisible and uncomfortable.”

Fashion and sex have so much in common, but the blurred lines between gender studies and fashion design sometimes make themselves clearer by drawing attention to the differing priorities on either side. It’s interesting to trace skin-revealing fads and pinpoint their place in the history of radical change, for example. The birth control pill is often noted as a source for sexual revolution, bra-burning and hip-huggers to follow. Underwear trends of the 90s like thick branded bands and layered boxers arrived just after the advent of the Aids crisis and the popularisation of condom-wearing.

Someone once said to me, “A thong is like a railroad between cultural centres,” meaning for bacteria, an image I can’t forget. A cheap thong looks like something that has washed ashore and dried out, but a nicer thong is sexy, suggestive, even endearing. The wearing of the thong can mean a multitude of deviant actions. It is strangely at once conservative and reactionary. Consider the conundrum of hiding panty lines by creating the illusion of underwearlessness.

In the 90s, a new wave of thong popularity and mass acceptance was ushered in by a mainstream linguistic shift. In 1992, MTV played Kyuss’s grungey “Thong Song”, which contained the lyrics, “My hair’s real long / no brains, all groin / no shoes, just thongs / I hate slow songs.” In 2000, this title was already dated enough to allow a new song with the same name to play on MTV and become a huge success. Kyuss’s understanding of the word as a type of footwear was now laughable, while Sisqó’s was the agreed-upon definition. Comparing the two videos provides not only an illustration of the changing definition of the word ‘thong’, but of the changing expectations of music videos on MTV.

Sisqó's “Thong Song” was regarded as a danceable summer joke, but its video was typical of R&B seducers of its time in terms of high production value, dramatic structure and objectifying women. In 1999, Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” came out. In my staticky memory, the video for the radio-friendly version, “Back That Thang Up”, became the most requested video on my local network TV’s experimental all-request channel, The Box. This video’s devoted low-budget look depicted a block party, not a beach party, and inspired a generation of sexually explicit rap content. Instead of designer bathing suits and rooftop pools, the women in this video dress casually and dance in streets or front yards. The extreme slow motion of “Back That Thang Up” made it clear that these women were wearing either nothing or a thong under their thin denim and khaki shorts, thereby making this video more sexual in nature than Sisqó’s, which mostly showed boy-cut bathing suits.

Three of the most notable aftereffects of “Back That Thang Up” are Nelly’s 2003 remix “Tip Drill”, Ludacris’s 2003 single “P-Poppin’”, and Sisqó’s sequel to “Thong Song”. In the video for the new version of “Thong Song” (created for the soundtrack to The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps), a change has occurred: Dancers are wearing thongs. The slow-motion ass-take is repeated and the focus has changed from a glance at a group of partying girls to a long stare at each girl’s thong, one at a time. The video still has a narrative, but more attention is placed on texture.

“The thong is centimetres closer to areas of arousal, which means it is that much closer to the truth” – Natasha Stagg

The (censored) video to “Tip Drill” – the chorus of which goes, “It must be that ass, ’cuz it ain’t your face” – uses a similar style of cinematography, taking the theme of voyeuristic intrusion one step further. It speaks of and shows women wearing thongs and taking them off, whereas “Thong Song” only asks someone to show the thong itself. “P-Poppin’” became “Booty Poppin’” for MTV. The video, which tells the story of a dance contest at the notorious Magic City strip club in Atlanta, got limited airtime. The TV-friendly video is so blurred it was essentially an advertisement for the director’s cut that could be found online.

In videos that spare no sensitivity to subject, camera-light is infrequently directed at female faces, instead focusing on the literal pulling of G-strings. Women in “Tip Drill” and “Booty Poppin’” are stripping in a club, competing for a famous rapper’s attention in his home, or table dancing at a sweaty party, their undergarments stretching and breaking.

The thong, like these artistic depictions, is marginalised. It is a hidden object, squeezed between lobes, becoming obscure (unable to fight the battle of visibility because of the very position that defines it), and therefore misunderstood. It denotes sexual deviance while it suggests an understanding of realness. The thong is centimetres closer to areas of arousal, which means it is that much closer to the truth. It is at once decorative and invisible, like the selling of sex itself. It asks what sex would feel like without censorship, what pornography would look like without an underground industry, and how far one can be pulled in any direction.

Sleeveless is out in October via Semiotext(e)