Happy Birthday, Thong!

It's time to honor the underwear that nearly brought down a presidency. It's the 20th anniversary of the thong.

When Frederick Mellinger began mass-marketing thong underwear — then known as "scanty panties" — back in August 1981, who knew it would become the fastest-growing segment of the multibillion-dollar women's under-apparel industry and a cultural phenomenon.

From Fifth Avenue to Kmart, ladies — and now gentlemen, too — can purchase these "unmentionables." The cheapies go for less than $15, while Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger can ask for $200 or more for theirs.

White House Thong Moment

The thong — a skimpy panty in front and a thin strap in the back — was just a novelty item back in 1981, something sold alongside crotchless and edible undies. But now we all know about "That thong th thong thong thong," as Sisqo sings.

The infamous Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky White House affair began with a steamy thong moment, according to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report. "In the course of flirting with [President Clinton]," the report states, "[Lewinsky] raised her jacket in the back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear."

Sure, they can be sexy. But many women say they've embraced the thong, sometimes known as "butt floss," in the never-ending quest to hide those visible panty lines. There is, of course, the "wedgie" factor. But what's a little discomfort in the name of looking good?

There's no doubt the everyday woman has embraced the thong. While only the daring don the thong in its beachwear form, as underwear, it has found its way into millions of women's wardrobes. Thong sales have more than doubled since 1997, while sales of regular panties have grown only about 10 percent, according to one fashion research group.

"These days, a woman comes into Frederick's of Hollywood and she buys maybe one corset. But she'll buy six, seven, eight thongs," says Frederick's spokeswoman-model Lee Ann Tweeden. "I can't even tell you the last time I wore full-bottom panties, and I think a lot of women who work everyday jobs in offices would say the same thing."

Tweeden, 28, has been modeling Frederick's undergarments for 10 years, "more than a lifetime in my business."

She says it doesn't matter what size or age a woman might be — thongs are for everyone.

"It used to be scandalous," she says. "Now it's a necessity. Clothing is form-fitting, and nobody wants lines."

From Loincloths to Silk and Hemp

In the early 1980s, thongs represented less than 5 percent of Frederick's sales. Now, the lingerie giant sells more than 75,000 a week. That accounts for more than 90 percent of sales. Over the years, Frederick's has developed more than 100 different colors, styles and fabrics, from low-rise to the "Rio," from cotton to charmeuse.

And there's plenty of competition from specialty houses. At online retailer Stephanna's Curves, full-figured women can find titanic teddies, and yes, thongs to fit a size 22 rear end. The proprieters say that "sex appeal does not come in a size 2 package."

If you're the crunchy-Granola hippie type, there's the all-natural, eco-friendly hemp thong. "You'd be surprised how well they sell," says George Bates of Shirt Magic in Lewiston, Calif.

"This is for the woman who has one eye on the environment and the other eye on impressing her boyfriend."

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