Her siren thong

Monica Lewinsky seduced the most powerful man in the world with a flash of her thong. Why is this unmentionable garment so sexy?

Published September 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Da tong," said the Russian hockey player's fabulously blond wife. "You must try da tong!" Lada Fetisov repeated, waving a wisp of silk and lace under my nose as we stood in the lingerie department at Neiman Marcus in New Jersey.

She was waxed and glossed and streaked, in high heels, push-up bra, Chanel accessories, form-fitting wool trousers and a La Perla thong. I was showered, in boots, jeans and Calvin Klein bikini briefs. I reached out for da tong. It was tiny, it was beguiling, it was ridiculous. Two years later it would do in the president of the United States.

Eve had her apple. Monica had her thong. According to the Starr Report, the whole damn affair started when she lifted up the back of her suit jacket in the Oval Office and flashed a teeny triangle at the top of her thong underwear for President Clinton. (Subtle, no, but effective nonetheless with a guy whose idea of seduction, if you believe Paula Jones, is to walk into a hotel room and drop his pants.) Ever since the story broke, I've been obsessed with the logistics of the scene -- she's a well-rounded girl, which means her skirt would ride up, not down, so it's not like she could pull a Halle Berry in "Bulworth" and have those skimpy side straps resting ever so naughtily on her exposed hips.

Did the press get it wrong, just like the stained dress that went from a Victor Alfaro cocktail number to a Gap navy shirtwaist? I figure Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson are about as thong-savvy as most of the general population, for whom thongs are flip-flops (at least that's what it says in Webster's College Dictionary). And why would a quick glimpse of underwear have such a powerful effect on the leader of the free world? To look under the only two rocks Ken Starr missed, I would have to do some investigating of my own.

First stop, Victoria's Secret. Shoppers were drawn, like moths to a flame, to a table on which cheap silk thongs were layered like cheap silk rose petals. "I can't find any in my size," complained a plus-14. "We've had a run on the larger sizes recently," said the sales clerk. "Do you have any in extra small?" asked a size 8 squeezed into a size 4.

Next stop, Bloomingdales. It was dizzying. Scarlet stretch lace thongs. White cotton "active" thongs. Thongs in leopard. Thongs in crushed velvet. Every thong you could imagine, except, thankfully, Days of the Week thongs. But which thong would Monica Lewinsky choose? Designer thong, definitely, and my woman's intuition told me Ralph Lauren over Calvin Klein: "Combining clean designs with refined, sophisticated fabrics and feminine detailing," the label read, "this collection illustrates both elegance and excellence."

Fifteen bucks -- plus tax -- later, and I was wearing a navy stretch lace thong of my own. As I strode down Lexington Avenue, I felt like the confident, sexy, modern Charlie girl from that old '70s perfume ad. I'm wearing a thong, my eyes flashed at the men who passed me by. Can you tell?

I draw the line at asking strangers if they're staring at my ass, so I hit the phones. "I look at every woman's butt to see if she's wearing a thong," said a 26-year-old Harvard MBA student. "And the ones that are, it's like a badge of honor -- these are women who think they're really good-looking, or at least they act like they are." It's the so-called thong vibe, and I heard it defined by man after man, from coast to coast. "I put thong, sexy and classy all in the same line," said a Connecticut sales rep, 24. "It's a turn-on, but there's nothing trashy about it. It's like a guy who isn't afraid to take his shirt off at the beach."

Here we've been so concerned about encouraging young women to have positive body images and the answer lies in butt floss. So why aren't we all in thongs? After one day in mine, I can assure you that there is no upside in comfort. Or in hygiene. And while this may be the only form of women's underwear that doesn't ride up or reveal the dreaded VPL (visible panty line), you'd think manufacturers would have come up with a more elegant solution than outfitting us like Howard Stern as Fart Man.

"I feel like I'm being forced into a thong because the only alternatives are Grandma underwear or a wedgie," said a 49-year-old Vancouver mother. "When I complained about the new high-cut briefs, the sales clerk's response was, 'Well, they look good on the hanger.'"

Gee, thanks.

Women are cursed with big butt phobia, which makes Monica's blithe disregard for the drawbacks of her size unusual. Guys, however, don't seem averse to the view. "Let's face it, the less underwear the better," said a Vancouver editor.

"Besides, the type of woman who is going to wear a thong will wear it no matter what," the sales rep added. (Oprah Winfrey, thong wearer? Yes. Hillary Rodham Clinton, thong wearer? No. Nine of 10 men agree.)

As for the audacity of flashing a thong in the Oval Office, "It's like the '90s version of the secretary who takes off her glasses and unpins her hair," says a Los Angeles PR executive. "This woman has a secret wild side." (Why, Miss Lewinsky, what fetching undies you have ...)

Finally, when asked whether it's possible for a hippy girl to effectively raise her jacket and not her skirt, the guys are sure that it was a preplanned offensive. "She must have gone into the bathroom, strategically arranged her clothes and then deployed the thong when feasible," explained a New York photographer.

Case closed. Now, would someone please assign a special prosecutor to uncover how men got women to wear G-strings while convincing us that they look sexiest in boxers?

By Shelley Youngblut

Shelley Youngblut is an editor in New York.

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Bill Clinton