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Wikipedia Commons

7 Strange Historical Fashion Trends

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Wikipedia Commons

Technicolored hair, body piercings, armadillo shoes—you’d think the 21st century had a lock on out-there fashion trends. But baffling sartorial crazes are hardly a modern development. From voluminous wigs to personal air fresheners to a town full of stilt-walkers, you’ll find the history books are filled with eyebrow-raising fashions meant to show off one’s social status. Here are seven trends that will make you grateful for jeggings (well, almost).

1. Scented Cones

British Museum

Tomb paintings from Ancient Egypt—such as the above, from the Tomb of Nebamun, c. 1350 BCE—depict noblewomen with cones atop their heads. In the days before deodorant, these cones acted as their own personal air fresheners. Made of scented wax or grease, the cones were often worn to banquets or indoor ceremonial gatherings, where the hot temperatures would melt the cones to release a sweet smell.

However, lack of archeological evidence (an intact cone has not yet been found) leads some Egyptologists to claim that the cones seen in the drawings are not meant to be taken literally, but are rather symbols that indicate the wearers’ wigs—also en vogue—were perfumed.

2. Powdered Wigs 

Hulton Archive / Handout

It’s no coincidence that the rise of wig-making and -wearing corresponded with the late-16th century syphilis outbreak.

In the Middle Ages, long hair denoted wealth and high social status for both men and women—only the rich could go about their days unhindered by their flowing locks. So, the more follicly-challenged members of the upper and middle classes (predominantly those with the nasty venereal disease) took to wearing horse, goat, or human hair wigs, known as perukes. They were coated with scented lavender or orange powder to mask the inevitable gnarly smells symptomatic of syphilis.

But the trend turned from necessity to the height of fashion when France’s King Louis XIV (above) began wearing wigs. Balding at the age of 17—again, likely from syphilis—Louis hired 48 wigmakers to keep his bare scalp well covered. When his cousin, England’s Charles II, started wearing wigs to hide his salt-and-pepper mop, the fad became a sensation. Powdered wigs were the look du jour until the late 18th century, when the French Revolution and a British tax on hair powder caused citizens to embrace their natural state.

3. Chopines

Popular among Venetians in the 16th and 17th centuries, chopines were a precursor to today’s platform sandals. As with powdered wigs, chopines were originally invented for practical purposes: Their thick, raised soles were meant to help women traverse Venice’s muddy or irregularly paved streets. However, as with the wigs, they came to be associated with wealth and status. The taller the shoe, the more important the person.

The trend was taken to dangerous levels as the platforms reached dizzying heights. The shoes got to be so high—a pair displayed at the Museo Correr dei Veneziani measures in at 20 inches—the wearer required an attendant to help her maintain her balance. (Lady Gaga, take note.)

4. A City of Stilt-Walkers

Hulton Archive / Stringer

The chopine not high enough for you? In the 19th century, the people of Landes, France, incorporated stilts into their daily ensembles. Tchangues, or “big legs,” were created by Landese shepherds to help navigate the brushy, swampy terrain. High atop the stilts, the shepherds could wade through pools of water and quickly scale the countryside without bothering to look for roads, which were few and far between.

An 1891 article in Scientific American, quoted here, described the stilts:

The stilts are pieces of wood about five feet in length, provided with a shoulder and strap to support the foot. The upper part of the wood is flattened and rests against the leg, where it is held by a strong strap. The lower part, that which rests upon the earth, is enlarged and is sometimes strengthened with a sheep's bone. The Landese shepherd is provided with a staff which he uses for numerous purposes, such as a point of support for getting on to the stilts and as a crook for directing his flocks.

But the tchangues weren’t reserved for the shepherds—all the villagers, men, women, and children alike, were skilled stilt-walkers.

5. Bombasting

Bombasting, or padding one’s clothing with extra stuffing, became popular during the Elizabethan era in Britain. At the time, both men and women were known to bombast their sleeves to create the gigantic “leg-of-mutton” poofs we now associate with the time period. Men would also bombast their doublets to create the appearance of a filled-out belly. A man’s Elizabethan doublet could include as much as four to six pounds of bombast, made from rags, cotton, horsehair, or bran.

While bombasting in the Elizabethan sense fell out of fashion in the mid-17th century, padding one’s perceived deficiencies never truly went out of style. Men of the colonial and regency periods in America and Britain were known to pad their calves to make them appear more muscular. And the leg-of-mutton sleeves made a resurgence at the end of the 19th century (just ask Anne Shirley about her love of puffed sleeves). Today, people are more likely to pad their bosoms or derrieres than their legs or arms.

6. Hobble Skirts

Thompson / Stringer / Getty Images

Not unlike high heels, hobble skirts were seemingly designed to slow women down. The name for this tight-fitting skirt, which became popular at the turn of the 20th century, does come from the term for tying a horse’s feet together to keep it from running off, after all.

French fashion designer Paul Poiret is credited with creating the first hobble skirt in 1910. His new narrow silhouette hugged the legs close and cinched in at the ankles. Of his decision to forgo a corset and petticoats in favor of a sleeker design, Poiret is said to have boasted, “Yes, I freed the bust … but I shackled the legs.”

7. The Symington Side Lacer

During the Roaring '20s, fashion trends began to favor a rectangular, boyish figure over an hourglass form. To achieve this straighter silhouette, women enlisted the help of some new-fangled undergarments.

The Symington Side Lacer, invented by corset-makers R. and W.H. Symington, was a type of bra specially designed to flatten, rather than support, a woman’s breasts. The wearer would slip the garment over her head and then pull the straps and side laces tight to smooth out any curves.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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]