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Thongs bottom out

Late one Tuesday afternoon, Mark Peress, a co-owner of Lingerie & Co. on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, ruminated with a customer on the fate of the thong.

"Sure, you have the thong," Peress said, tossing a handful of skimpy mesh thongs onto the glass-topped counter. "But now, you also have these," he said, piling up an assortment of women's panties.

There were bikinis, briefs and tap pants cut in luscious satin. There were generously cut tangas, lace hipsters, low-rise briefs, ribboned boy shorts and a complicated model Peress calls the tap-thong hybrid.

The array was dizzying, the fabric plentiful, and the message clear: more modest underwear is beginning to muscle out the thong panty, that racy totem of female sexuality once flashed by celebrities and rapped about on the radio.

Adam Lippes, founder of the lingerie line Adam (PLUS) Eve, said the reason is simple: thong fatigue.

"The thong got skinnier and skinnier, and women got tired of it," he said. "And they got sick and tired of seeing string hanging out of the top of every celebrity's jeans. It's just gross. I think it went too far over the edge and enough is enough."

The thong has saturated American popular culture since the late 1990s. At first, clingy new fabrics and body-conscious fashions demanded an undergarment that prevented visible panty lines, the dread syndrome known as VPL. And so the thong, imported from the world of exotic dance, was introduced.

The thong, with straps worn high over the hips, exposed by fashionable low-rise jeans and Juicy Couture sweat pants, became a public icon. Sisqo rhapsodized about it in his Thong Song. Abercrombie & Fitch introduced a line of thong underpants for 10-year-old girls printed with phrases like "Wink Wink" and "Eye Candy."

Web sites began to chronicle bad celebrity thong moments. And then there was Monica Lewinsky, who forced historians and authors such as David Halberstam, David Gergen, Bob Woodward and Kati Marton to address the issue of the thong in their books on the Clinton presidency.

Just as Madonna made bras a public garment in the 1980s, Lewinsky, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton transformed women's panties into a provocative garment intended for public display.

The thong underpant became a cultural touchstone, the very symbol of the tease. It caught on at a time when lad magazines such as Maxim and FHM, with their photographs of panty-clad but never entirely nude women, took over from the old-man's magazine, Playboy, with its gauzy, fully naked pinups; when adolescent love was celebrated with the soul-free hookup, a form of physical connection without the burden of intimacy. Lewinsky flashed her thong to begin an affair that didn't feature real sex, at least by the definition of one party. Spears, the celebrity perhaps most associated with the thong, embraced the virgin-temptress paradox with cutting accuracy. Audiences could look, but they could never touch. The thong is an invitation, not a promise.

But the thong as mere undergarment may have reached its tipping point. While demand remains healthy, sales of the thong have flattened, said Marshal Cohen, chief apparel analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.

"During the growth period, everyone was building their wardrobe of thongs, so everything you bought was thong, thong, thong," he said, adding that for the past four years, thong sales grew by 8 percent each year.

And while the thong still represents 24 percent of the $2.5-billion annual market in women's underwear, Cohen said, it is no longer growing. "It has peaked out," he said.

There are many reasons. The thong probably reached its comfort level with consumers, as women who were game enough to try the thong for a year or two have emerged from the delirious consumer hypnosis that often accompanies popular trends and realized that, well, the thong just looks awful on them.

Underwear designers have also introduced new styles, such as the boy short, a hip-hugging brief with leg openings that hug the bottom of the buttocks and extend further down the legs than traditional women's briefs. And the boy short can be made in whisper-thin microfiber materials that in combination with wide lacy trim almost eliminate the panty-line threat.

"The boy short really took away from the thong," Cohen said.

At Cosabella, one of the companies that popularized the thong, the boy short is the fastest-growing item, said Brooke Melzer, a company spokeswoman.

"We're known for our thongs, but boy shorts are everybody's favorite right now," she said. The thong is still the company's No. 1 seller, but when Melzer and her team went to the MTV Music Awards to hand out freebies to stars, she was surprised by the response.

"All the celebrities were like, "Hey, do you have any boy shorts with you?' " she said.

Perhaps the thong's continuing appeal and popularity lie in its utility, not its sexuality, said Deborah Lloyd, executive vice president of design for Banana Republic.

"Every woman is going to need a thong underpant for certain clothes, and that is just what has happened to it," Lloyd said. "It has become more of a function piece, not an outwardly sexy piece. Something to take care of panty lines."

"The best seller was always the classic brief, and then the thong," Lloyd said. "But then the boy short came in and split the sales of the thong." Consumers wanted a more playful, sportier look, one they could even wear around the house.

"You can't really wear a thong around the house," Lloyd said. "I mean, not really."

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