The thong, ubiquitous on South American and European shores for decades and now appearing at a municipal swimming pool near you, is the most abbreviated garment possible. 'It's virtually backless, with no sides, and what we call an understring underneath,' explains John Walker, managing director of Kiniki, a British swimwear and underwear manufacturer. 'We are selling thousands.'
G-strings are constructed to a similar principle; 'Thongs are more robust and worn as beachwear - G-strings are more elasticated and usually worn as underwear,' says Walker.
Thong sales burgeon in hot weather - 'Sales are up, the last two weeks have been exceptional,' says Liz Fishburn, another thriving thong retailer. 'We sell them to clergy, lords, Joe Public - you don't need a perfect body to wear them,' she adds, unconvincingly.
They have also become a big story on the haute couture catwalks and in high street stores. 'Thongs fit the way women live and dress today. They look natural and modern,' claimed Calvin Klein in the fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar this month. Klein is increasing the number of thong styles in his collection 'to meet growing demands'.
Helena Stuart, a thong-as- underwear lingerie designer, enthusiastically points out that there are advantages to backless undies: 'Let's face it, visible panty lines are disgusting.' Even Marks & Spencer is selling a line called the 'mini- string', though a ludicrously snooty spokeswoman refused to give further details of the style because such subjects are 'not serious enough for M&S'.
Style aficionados take note: in Rio, cradle of the beach thong, topless sunbathing for women is frowned upon. 'Here in Europe, everyone will go topless, but they won't wear ridiculously brief bottoms,' observed one woman traveller. 'In Rio, only foreigners go topless. There are a lot more hangups about uncovering your breasts - but when it comes to thongs, people think 'oh, it's only my bottom', and don't mind at all. It's a cultural divide.'
Brazilian babes buy their thongs, known as fio dental (Portuguese for dental floss) in top beachwear store Bum Bum (pronounced boom boom - branches handy for both Copacabana and Ipanema beaches). Tips on increasing your bottom's curves and making them more shapely are a preoccupation in Brazilian womens' magazines.
However, in this country not everyone will be casting aside their sensible knee-length trunks or black one-pieces and leaping gleefully on to the thong bandwagon.
'They are horrid,' observed one sunbather. 'People who wear them very rarely have Baywatch bods and they expose one of the least appealing parts of the anatomy.'
A feeling that such a flimsy string will not survive an energetic crawl adds to the unease. 'It wouldn't last five minutes,' snorted a keen swimmer.
In the underwear department, it seems that unintentional purchases may account for a certain number of sales.
'I did buy some by mistake once,' confesses one man. 'I was in a hurry and I grabbed the first thing in my size with the word 'briefs' on the packaging. They were bloody uncomfortable. I lived in fear of getting into a seduction situation, because they were so embarrassing. Distinctly tacky, I'd say.'
Brazilian student Luis is a keen flesh-barer when at home in Rio. 'Thongs are cool and comfortable, they are airy, you don't get white marks, you can show off your tan. But British people shouldn't wear them. Their bottoms are too floppy, too white. I don't wear mine in this country. I am afraid of giving some poor English woman a heart attack.'
Elizabeth Walker, executive fashion and beauty editor of Marie Claire magazine, believes the recent thong sightings will prove to be fleeting. 'When people have olive skin and wonderful bodies, like the Brazilians, the Italians, the Greeks, they look less naked. The British are the wrong shape and the wrong colour.'
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