I was in high school when thongs officially became a national obsession. It was a weird time—the late nineties—when America was prudish enough to clutch its collective pearls over the president’s extramarital affair but prurient enough to make “Thong Song,” a ditty that was literally just Sisqo begging to see women’s underwear, a massive hit with preteens who called into Total Request Live every day after school.
Thongs had always been a thing, of course. But until the late nineties, they were firmly in the realm of the Bad Girls (witness the world’s furor every time Cher wore one onstage); like over-the-knee boots, if you wanted a thong, your best bet was to hit up a sex shop or to flip through the soft-focus pages of the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog. People definitely wore them, but they were not the kind of thing you could buy at the local mall.
But by 1999 thongs had not just moved into the mall—they’d taken it over, from the pink-striped mannequins at Victoria’s Secret, to the cool girls proudly sporting whale tail with low-rise jeans in the food court. Britney and X-tina wore them onstage or on the red carpet. Somewhere along the way, thongs became a sort of shorthand for sexiness—while their full-coverage counterparts, which were worn by pretty much everyone just a few years prior, became synonymous with priggish loserdom.
It’s no accident that around the same time thongs became the default underpinning of choice for young women, the phrase “granny panties” suddenly appeared.
Everyone knew exactly what these were without being told. Odds are, you already have an image in your head about the silhouette we’re talking about: Granny panties refer to big, high-waisted, thoroughly butt-covering, depressingly practical cotton knickers. The antiaphrodisiac, if you will. By 2001 they—and by extension the women who wore them—had become enough of a punch line that they inspired a memorable scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary, wherein the hapless Bridget—horror of horrors!—wears a pair on her date with Daniel Cleaver. When Daniel discovers the granny panties, he gawks, calls them “absolutely enormous,” then shadily comforts the mortified Bridget with a rapid-fire series of backhanded compliments. He actually “quite likes them!” His own underwear looks similar! He goes on to add a thoroughly Freudian “Hello, Mummy” for good measure, thus ending our collective love affair with Hugh Grant.
The message behind the scene was clear: Granny panties are strictly for the Golden Girls set; on cute, young women (and, heaven forbid, on a date), they’re a joke.
Since teenage me was a contrarian by nature and a punk-rock/vintage-loving weirdo by choice, I had no time whatsoever for what Cosmopolitan quizzes and the TRL watchers of the world deemed “sexy” or “cool”—nor did I have any desire to emulate Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and their accidental-on-purpose visible thong straps. Though, I will admit, at the height of their hype, I did break down and buy a G-string. However, I quickly found that, despite my girlfriends’ spurious claims that “they’re so comfortable!” it felt pretty much exactly like you’d expect a skimpy piece of butt floss to feel. More important, it felt so thoroughly un-me; the world told me this was the sexiest thing you could wear, but when I put it on, I just felt so…obvious. I felt much cuter in bikinis, boy shorts, and yes, even the most maligned, misunderstood style of them all: the full-coverage, high-waisted brief—the dreaded granny panty.
My love for granny panties remained my closely guarded secret until a few years ago, when I discovered other women in my social circle—cool, fashionable ladies in their twenties and thirties—were into them too. And not just sheepishly, on laundry day. At a group dinner with said crowd, I confided that I couldn’t stand thongs and thought VPL (i.e., “visible panty line,” for the uninitiated) was a conspiracy cooked up by lingerie manufacturers to sell them. One by one, my friends confessed their secret love for granny panties.
One fashion-editor friend exclusively wore thongs until a yeast infection inspired her to buy a pack of plain cotton undies; they were so comfortable (and flattering under high-waisted pants), she never looked back. Another is a vintage freak, but couldn’t bring herself to buy used underthings—granny panties gave her the pinup vibes she liked without the heebie-jeebies of secondhand lingerie. Another just dug wearing them around the house with old T-shirts, and though she said her partner found them super sexy, that’s not why she wore them: “They’re my DGAF undies,” she said with a shrug.
That unpretentious, chill-girl vibe may be one reason why lots of women have been reconsidering the humble, secretly beloved granny panty lately. Sales of full-coverage underwear styles have risen 129 percent on Lyst in the last year, according to Sarah Tanner, the platform’s public relations director; thong sales, meanwhile, have dropped by 26 percent. In the past six months, the most-sold lingerie bottoms on Lyst have been the Commando High Rise Panties, followed by the Splendid Boy Shorts—both modest, covered-up styles.
While some mass retailers like Gap and Aerie have started offering high-waisted, full-back briefs, the silhouette is largely neglected by lingerie behemoths like Victoria’s Secret, which is actually kind of cool, because it means the gap in the market is being filled by smaller lingerie companies, many of which have female founders and designers. Some of these include Lonely, Mary Young, Negative Underwear, and Undone. And though these companies don’t wear their politics on their sleeves, one can sense a feminist undercurrent in their fresh approach to lingerie and in their embrace of the oft-scorned granny panty: These are women making underwear with women’s comfort, style, and sexiness in mind—lingerie for the female gaze.
Mary Young, designer and founder of her namesake lingerie line, tells Glamour that she first noticed the full-coverage trend five years ago, but that it really took off in 2014. She sees the shift as emblematic of women’s empowerment: “Women are choosing full-coverage underwear now more than ever because they’re challenging what the fashion industry has been telling them for years. Women feel empowered by choosing garments that offer comfort first, rather than an unrealistic ideal of what sexy is.” Today her two best-selling styles are the full-coverage Mesh Panel Bikini and the Logan High Cut Bikini, which sits right at the wearer’s natural waist.
Lindsay Reeve, cofounder of Undone, agrees that “high-waisted briefs are definitely having a moment.” She credits their mix of comfort and style, with a dash of nostalgia, as a reason for their popularity. “Fuller-coverage styles recall nineties glamour and seventies-era defiance, both of which are appealing and aesthetically relevant for different reasons,” she says. “Mainly, though, full-bum styles are comfortable; they’re designed around how women feel. We make a lot of our high-waisted pieces from extremely soft material, so they feel luxurious against the skin.”
“There’s been a clear movement toward comfort in women’s fashion with the rise of athleisure, sneakers. For some women nonthong underwear is part of that trend,” adds Marissa Vosper, cofounder of Negative Underwear. “There’s been an aesthetic shift in lingerie—away from the pushed-up, neon pink, super-skimpy G-string vibes of the early 2000s—toward something more relaxed: bralettes, neutral palettes, and higher waist lines are all part of that.” Her brand makes a mix of thong and fuller-coverage styles, and reports that, although the latter category is one of its latest additions, it has been garnering a lot of buzz. “While they don’t beat thongs or low-rise briefs for us yet, [our high-waist briefs are] definitely getting the most attention in terms of editor, press, and influencer love,” Vosper notes.
Among all lingerie brands, New Zealand–based Lonely may be the truest of the granny-panty believers: As founder and designer Helene Morris tells Glamour, “Lonely does not make any traditional thongs, and has long been a champion of higher-waisted silhouettes; our customers love them because they look beautiful, and most important, they’re comfortable.”
If granny panties haven’t fully taken over thongs yet in the public imagination, it may be because, to mainstream tastes, they’re still not seen as sexy in the “black-lace garter belt” tradition. But for many women there’s a more subtle allure to full-coverage underwear, and it has everything to do with confidence.
“Full coverage is definitely as sexy as a thong!” Young argues. “When a woman is comfortable and confident, she’s undeniably sexy.”
“It’s a more low-key kind of sexy, a new sensuality,” Reeve says. “Real sexiness is individual, it shouldn’t be forced or conventional. I’m really into the way women are redefining sexiness on their own terms.”
Of course, it must be said that none of these brands are making granny panties in the clichéd, unsexy, Bridget Jones mold—take Mary Young’s popular Lux High Waist Brief, featuring an all-mesh back panel, or Lonely’s lacy Lulu brief: Both are very much a sexy subversion of your typical full-coverage style.
And what of that dread specter women have been taught to fear—the VPL? Wisely chosen full-coverage underwear can minimize lines just as well, Reeve points out: “If you really can’t get behind VPL, choose styles made from thinner materials like mesh or fine bamboo, and make sure to wear your true size.”
But these days most people seem to feel that VPL is NBD and can even be embraced. (Revolutionary, we know.) “Unless VPL affects your confidence, don’t worry about it,” Young says. “If you’re concerned about others noticing it, forget it—this is about you and your comfort. Wear what works best for your body, what embraces your shape, and what empowers you. If you have VPL, then so be it! By no means should you change your underwear to make others feel comfortable.”
So does the rise of the granny panty mean the death of the thong? Not necessarily. As Young says: “I don’t believe thong underwear is on the way out, but I do think women are embracing their options more now than they have before. Women are choosing pieces that are comfortable; for some that’s a thong, and for others that may be full-coverage or even a Brazilian cut.” It’s all about having as much variety as possible on the market. “There will always be a time and place for the thong, like under a formfitting dress or at the gym; no other style passes the squat test like a well-designed thong—but it’s no longer the only option,” Reeve argues. “Women are approaching their underwear wardrobes much like their clothing, which is to say more deliberately and expressively. We don’t need to choose between seductiveness on the one hand and practicality on the other. There’s a whole spectrum of styles out there, for different needs and changing moods.”
What’s more, the hard-and-fast lines between what’s sexy and what’s not are blurring, according to Vosper. “The world used to be polarized between ‘thong people’ and ‘nonthong people,’ and now things are more blended,” she observes. “Instead of wearing just one type of underwear all the time, people want different styles for different occasions. It’s not uncommon for our customer to buy a bra with the matching thong, low rise brief, and high-waist brief in one order.”
So, as women increasingly come around to the appeal of the granny panty, that doesn’t mean they need to burn their thongs. Unlike the late nineties, this isn’t an either-or, in-out situation. Just like with clothes or makeup, women are embracing underwear as a uniquely personal vehicle for expression and choosing undies that fit their tastes and moods, rather than rigidly ascribing to one type of undergarment. Some people (like me) may never quite feel comfortable in a thong, while other women may never come around to granny panties,and that’s cool. But the more we reclaim granny panties from the myth of their supposed frumpiness, the more options we all have when we stand in front of our underwear drawer and ask: What do I feel like wearing today?