The thong

Produced as part of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

Ran from 16 April 2016 to 12 March 2017

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In April 1975 in The Times, Prudence Glynn described designer Rudi Gernreich as ‘the man who in the late sixties sought to diminish the facts of La Difference by producing a topless bathing suit.’ Considered either liberating or objectifying, the bathing suit covered the wearer to the waist and was secured by two straps or ties at the neck. This left the breasts exposed and framed, while still partially protecting the wearer from the elements and full exposure.

In the mid-60s, Gernreich also skirted controversy with his ‘No-bra’ bra. In a fashion and cultural moment in which some women went bra-less and clothes were often revealing, minimal, smooth-fitting underwear was necessary. Made from sheer nylon net, the ‘No-bra’ bra was promoted as supportive yet able to give you ‘the natural nude look of a firm, young, bra-less bosom’.

Naming the thong

Turning his attention from the breast to the bottom, Gernreich is credited with naming the thong. Created in reaction to Los Angeles’ ban on nude public swimming, these unisex bathing suits met the confines of the new modesty law, whilst still exposing the majority of the wearer’s skin. In her article ‘Thong of Thongs’ in 1974, Anne Hollander described the new style as ‘instead of topless, it will be backless, or, somewhat obliquely, bottomless in the British sense.’ Taking the topless swimsuit a step further, Hollander explained, the garment ‘clings tightly between the exposed buttocks in back but covers the appropriate areas in front like a skimpy bib, giving the body a virtually nude rear and a sparsely clad front. One must admit it is a triumph of dialectic.’ For additional coverage, women could buy an optional top.

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Thong, Rudi Gernreich (1922-85) for Lily of France, 1978, United States, nylon and spandex. V&A: FTF Unregistered Collection, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While Gernreich’s design sought to answer a particular social problem, his original inspiration came from his childhood in Vienna. Gernreich would watch trim, muscular labourers swimming in the local pool, wearing only small loincloths, and this memory eventually evolved into ‘The Thong’. While promoting the new design, he also referenced the fundoshi worn by sumo wrestlers as a possible influence.

The design was also produced as underwear and was made for women from 1975 by the American company Lily of France with the trademark ‘The Thong’. While thongs are now perhaps associated with overexposure and avoiding VPL, at the time Hollander hypothesised that the thong ‘might be the thing to regenerate our ever so slightly withering sense of sexual mystery’.

The example in our collection was an anonymous donation. It was accompanied by a letter which explained that the piece had been bought in New York in 1978. Intended as a gift that was never given, the thong remains in its original packaging, making it all the more unusual.