When Beyoncé's British Vogue cover story was released, among a handful of stunning photographs featured, one stood out. The shot showed Knowles-Carter with her back to the camera in a low-back, red Christopher John Rogers gown, a crystal-encrusted Agent Provocateur G-string on display. “Someone needs to come collect me off the floor,” Whembley Sewell, Editor-in-Chief of Them, wrote below Rogers’ Instagram post. Under her comment, stylist Mecca James-Williams wrote, “MAJOR.” In the 48 hours following the story’s release, fashion search engine Lyst reported that search for Christopher John Rogers increased by 20%, as did red maxi dresses, which spiked 101%. The visible thong, a trend popular during Destiny’s Child Y2K reign, while surprising on the cover of a publication like British Vogue, is just the latest example of the G-string slowly creeping its way back into fashion in 2020.
The controversial trend, also known as a whale tail, made its fashion debut at Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring ‘97 runway show. A few years later, it was spotted on celebrities like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Christina Milian, and Christina Aguilera. At the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, Spears wore a gold two-piece with a built-in G-string during a performance of “Oops I Did It… Again;” Hilton’s exposed thong debuted at a New York Fashion Week presentation in 2001; and Milian was spotted not once, but twice, in 2002 — first at the premiere of Spears’ flick Crossroads, and again at Justin Timberlake’s Justified release party. And these are just the highlights.
By the mid-’00s, to our relief, the trend went away… only to resurface again last year. At the 2019 camp-themed Met Gala, Hailey Bieber walked the pink carpet alongside designer Alexander Wang wearing a matching form-fitting gown with a low back. With the dress, Bieber showed off a thong that spelled out “Wang” in the same cotton candy shade of pink.
A month after the Met Gala, during spring ‘20 Milan Men’s Fashion Week, model Bella Hadid walked the Versace show wearing a black bralette underneath a sparkling blazer and fitted, black pants. Peeking out from underneath the ultra-low hem of her trousers, was, you guessed it, a thong, one baring Versace’s signature gold logo. Days later in Paris, a model on the Heron Preston catwalk wore patterned, low-rise cargo pants that showed off her black G-string. Also in June 2019, Euphoria star Alexa Demie (who plays Maddy Perez) wore an open-back, snakeskin dress by Mexican fashion brand Akna at the red carpet premiere of the HBO hit series. In a move that Maddy would approve of — the brand designed her character’s crystal two-piece set for the homecoming episode — the actress paired the floor-length, gloved dress with a black, gem-encrusted thong. Jennifer Lopez and Rowan Blanchard also let their underwear slip into view in 2018 and 2019, respectively — Lopez on the set of Second Act in Natasha Zinko trousers, and Blanchard for a night out in New York City.
Cut to 2020 and the pandemic, and comfort is reigning over style. While the nap dress and loungewear trends have been consistently on the rise since spring, others, like fitted suiting, that were set to rise pre-COVID fell flat once most of the world was ushered indoors. Which makes it that much harder to believe that the G-string has not only returned to haunt us, but is actually gaining popularity in lockdown. And yet, here we are, with visible thongs creeping up everywhere.
In October, hours after posing alongside her former boss Paris Hilton in matching velour sweatsuits, Kim Kardashian West posted an image of herself wearing a thong-baring Givenchy dress to Instagram. If that didn't transport you back to the aughts, this will: Kimora Lee Simmons, the founder of '00s cult brand Baby Phat, commented on the photo. “Your thong is showing ladyyyyyyy!!!” That same month, Emily Ratajkowski nearly tricked us into thinking her first spotting post-pregnancy news included a visible G-string when she wore a cutout Aya Muse dress. (It was a false alarm; the form-fitting dress just had a deceptive side strap). Then, of course, came the Beyoncé cover.
Celebrities have long worn out-there fashion that we wouldn’t dare to. But they aren't the only ones who are welcoming back the controversial trend. There's a new wave of designers currently embracing the whale tail. Kendra Duplantier launched her namesake brand with a pair of low-rise black trousers with cutouts resembling a visible thong just as Los Angeles was going into lockdown. What's interesting is that her brand’s ethos is all about slow, ethical fashion, with each piece designed to remain relevant and stylish season after season. For her, thong-baring isn’t a trend at all, but a staple. Kari Fry, the designer behind another just-launched L.A.-based brand, Subsurface, has also made thongs a focal point of her brand. Her Hostess pant — which “embodies all things late ‘90s and early 2000s,” according to the website — features a thong-like cutout.
Fry tells Refinery29 that she believes in the “20-year-rule,” the idea that trends return every two decades. “Designs and trends tend to run on a cycle, and a lot of young designers coming up right now are ‘90s babies. I’m a ‘90s baby and this style is nostalgic for me." Specifically, the designer took inspiration from another famous early-aughts celebrity look: Gillian Anderson’s 2001 Vanity Fair Oscars after-party dress. For the occasion, the British actress — known by Gen Z as Otis’ sex therapist mother on the Netflix show Sex Education and by Gen X and millennials as Special Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files (she's also Margaret Thatcher on The Crown) — wore a long-sleeved, backless dress made of jersey. Paired with it was a sheer black thong. (Because it was 2001, she also wore tiny sunglasses with lavender-tinted lenses and carried an acetate top-handle bag.) “I wanted to create a sporty, wearable rendition [of Anderson’s red carpet look],” says Fry.
Call it nostalgia for simpler times or the cyclical nature of fashion trends, but the whale tail is back. Though, if you ask us, Beyoncé is the only one who can really pull it off.