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A Brief History of Men's Underwear

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Today is National Underwear Day! It's taken thousands of years to perfect the boxers or briefs that you're wearing right now. Here's a brief and incomplete look at the history of men's underwear.

Loincloths Offer Some Coverage

The first known underwear dates back almost 7000 years, when prehistoric man used leather to cover and protect his loins while running prehistoric errands. For several millennia, not much changed. Ancient Egyptian art shows everyone from the pharaohs on down the line decked out in loincloths of their own. The pharaohs even wore a sort of specialized kilt/loincloth called a shendoh, and took extra supplies of the garment into their pyramids for use in the afterlife.

Codpieces Become All the Rage

Variations on the loincloth seem to have persisted into the Middle Ages, when loose-fitting trousers called braies came into fashion. These linen duds extended from the waist to around mid-calf, and once the wearer stepped into his breeches he had to lace them tight around his waist and shins. Although all of the tying wasn't so convenient, these braies had the advantage of offering a lot of coverage, so if a laborer got too hot he could strip down to his skivvies while still maintaining some sense of decorum.

On the other hand, all of the lacing and cinching made answering nature's call a bit of a hassle. Enter the codpiece. A codpiece that opened at the front using buttons, snaps, or laces enabled men to urinate without removing their braies, which really came in handy when you'd had a bit too much mead.

These early codpieces were practical, but as hemlines rose, they started to take on a decorative function, too. When Henry VIII began to pad his codpiece in the 16th century, all of his loyal subjects followed suit. (Nevermind that scholars later speculated that Henry VIII's bulging codpiece may not have actually been male overcompensation—it may have been oversized to accommodate medication-soaked bandages to alleviate some of the pain from a suspected case of syphilis. It's worth noting that modern scholars have mostly dismissed this theory.) Codpiece padding and growth continued throughout the mid-sixteenth century before tailing off around 1590.

Prizefighters Get Stretchy

"Boxers or briefs?" Before the 1920s, this question would have gotten you little more than a blank look, mostly because neither boxers nor briefs had been invented yet. From Victorian times into the 1930s, men had mostly worn tight-fitting knee-length flannel "drawers" beneath their pants and donned similarly snug flannel tops as undershirts.

This state of affairs doesn't sound too comfy, but things got a little more breathing room in 1925. Jacob Golomb, the founder of the venerable boxing equipment company Everlast, started to tweak designs for the trunks worn by pugilists. Golomb realized that the leather-belted trunks fighters had been wearing weren't totally ideal, so he replaced the leather with more flexible elastic waistbands.

Boxer shorts weren't an immediate success as underwear, though. They lacked the support that drawers and union suits had offered, so men weren't crazy about them. It really wasn't until after World War II that boxer shorts took off to challenge their younger siblings, the briefs.

A Postcard Inspires Tighty Whities

Underwear drawers changed forever in 1934 when Arthur Kneibler, an executive and designer at the Wisconsin hosiery company Coopers, Inc., received a postcard from a friend who was visiting the French Riviera.

The postcard depicted a man in a bikini-style bathing suit, and "apparel engineer" Kneibler had an epiphany: couldn't this type of swimsuit be converted into underwear?

early-jockey-shorts
After some experimentation, Kneibler introduced a new kind of snug, legless underwear with an overlapping Y-front fly. Coopers dubbed the new product "Jockey shorts" because the high level of support the garment offered was reminiscent of jockstraps.

Coopers took its first batch of Jockey briefs to Chicago's landmark department store Marshall Fields on January 19, 1935. Although the weather was awful—Chicago was in the grip of a blizzard—the entire load of 600 pairs of Jockeys sold out on the first day. Within three months, the company sold 30,000 pairs of Jockey shorts. Coopers kept making and marketing its wildly successful underwear, and in 1971 the company changed its name to Jockey.

The Secret Service Gives Joe Boxer a Boost

joe-boxerDesigner underwear became all the rage in the 1970s and 80s as labels like Calvin Klein began to transform our drawers from something we hid under our pants into the sort of fashion and lifestyle choice one could flaunt in a bad music video. Cuts became tighter and sexier, and underwear designs became flashy, loud, and often humorous.

One of the main beneficiaries of this new obsession with snappy underwear was Joe Boxer, which started making skivvies in 1984 when it filled an order for Macy's that included a design with a Velcro-attached removable raccoon tail. Joe Boxer really jumped into the spotlight in 1985, though, when it made boxers printed with the image of hundred-dollar bills. The Secret Service decided that these duds violated forgery laws and confiscated 1,000 pairs of the offending underwear. Instead of simply hiring lawyers, Joe Boxer turned the seizure into a lighthearted news event, and the image of boxers as a playful alternative to stolid briefs grew.

Underwear Takes the Nation's Economic Pulse

greenspanAlthough there haven't been many huge underwear breakthroughs since the introduction of boxer briefs in the early 1990s (and even those are sort of a throwback to the union suits favored by pre-1930s men), boxers and briefs found their way onto the financial pages in early 2008. That's when former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan revealed that the state of the men's underwear industry is an important indicator of the economy's health.

The logic Greenspan outlined regarding underwear was both simple and elegant. Most guys have a drawer full of fairly ratty underwear that they'll wear until the elastic is dead and the boxers are riddled with holes. Since coworkers and friends generally don't see a guy's underwear, replacing these frayed undergarments often seems like a discretionary purchase for men. As such, when men start fearing the economy is in a downturn and need a place to save a little cash, they simply stop replenishing their underwear drawer with fresh Jockeys. Sounds reasonable enough, right? Sure enough, when the economy started to tail off in 2008, annual men's underwear sales dropped by 12%.

See Also:

7 Things Historical Women Wore Under Their Skirts

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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