CLOSE
Original image
ThinkStock

The Strange Origins of 5 Iconic Fashions

Original image
ThinkStock

Many of the basic fashions we take for granted today were popularized by people who were just a little bit bonkers.

1. The Necktie

Getty Images

The tie can be traced back to Croatian mercenaries at the court of Louis XIV. In order to stand out in the crowded court at Versailles, they wore cravats (from “Croate"). Some Frenchmen thought this look was stylish and adopted it themselves. But it was a Regency dandy named Beau Brummell (above) who really made it compulsory for men to wrap a piece of fabric tightly around their necks, a style which has never died out in the past 200 years.

Brummell was the ultimate fashion icon. If he dressed a certain way, everyone did as well, including the then-Prince of Wales, the future George IV. He took hours to get ready every day and it was considered an honor to be invited to watch him. He cleaned his boots in champagne and introduced hygiene to the upper class with his weird obsession of bathing and brushing his teeth daily. He was probably the first personal stylist, and aristocrats would come to this common man and ask his opinion on what they should wear. But his expertise didn’t come cheap; Brummel once said that if you were very careful with your money, it might be possible to dress appropriately for a year on a mere $160,000.

He also invented most of those complicated neckerchief styles seen in portraits of the period, many of which took numerous servants, yards of cloth, and upwards of an hour to do correctly. Doing this once a day would be bad enough, but a true gentleman would change his tie at least three times a day, and if a new one wasn’t knotted perfectly he would be expected to start over from scratch.

2. The Suit Jacket

One hundred years later there was a new leader of style in London. Queen Victoria's son and heir Albert ("Bertie") wanted to be more involved with her reign and was constantly asking for things to do. Victoria didn’t comply, not liking her son very much and thinking he was kind of stupid, so he had to look for other things to fill his days. At a young age he became the leader of the “fashionable set.”

With nothing else to occupy his mind he became obsessed with appearance—his and everyone else’s. On a cruise to Scotland he asked his servants to dress a little bit more “ethnic” as they got closer, but of course not dressing completely Scottish until they actually landed. He once started a fight with his mistress and refused to talk to her for days because she wore the same dress twice in one week.

From a very young age his looks were influential. If you have a picture of yourself as a child wearing a variation on a sailor suit, you can thank young Bertie (or whoever was dressing him). And the style of creasing trousers down the middle is also credited to the prince.

But one of the most enduring styles he created was completely by accident. Bertie was extremely fat, and one night he either forgot to do up the bottom button of his suit jacket or it popped open because of his girth. All of his friends immediately started wearing their jackets the same way, and to this day that is considered the correct way to wear one.

3. The Bra

Despite the stereotype, no 1970s radical feminist ever told women to burn their bras—but in the 1870s, a radical feminist did tell women to "burn [their] corsets." The binding metal underwear was starting to fall out of favor as they kept women tired and, quite literally, tied up.

Some of the earliest women’s rights campaigners, like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, went after the painful undergarment. An alternative, the bra, developed in various stages by men and women in Europe and America, owes its popularity to women like Phelps who laid the groundwork for the new undergarment by fighting for the end of the old one. Pro-corset/anti-bra crusaders worried that women would start having terrible figures, take up hobbies, do more exercise, and generally be unladylike if their clothing stopped limiting their ability to move.

And, thankfully, they were right. Phelps herself married a man 17 years younger and had a writing career, including turning out a few saucy romantic novels based on Bible stories.

4. The High Heel


Wikimedia Commons

While they may be a hindrance these days, heels were originally created for practical reasons. High heels on boots were first worn by men so that their shoes stayed in the stirrups while riding horses into battle. Then women in Italy started wearing huge platform shoes to raise them above the garbage and feces in the streets. While they kept the muck off of their dresses, the platforms, which could be up to a foot high, did make it virtually impossible to walk around unaided. But it was a tiny princess who gave us the high heel as we know it today.

While her exact height is lost to history, we know that Catherine de Medici was short even for her time period. (Centuries of royal inbreeding will do that to you.) And when her marriage was arranged to the French King Henri II in 1547, this became a problem. Her hubby-to-be had a really beautiful, really tall mistress named Diane who he was besotted with, and Catherine wanted to look better than her at the wedding. She couldn't do anything about her looks, but she could do something about her height. She ordered her shoemaker to make an entirely new type of shoe, one that had a platform that was shorter in the front than in the back. This new high heel added inches to her height and allowed her to walk around on her own. But in the end it was all for nothing, as Henri still favored his mistress over his wife until the day he died. (The shoe above is circa the 1760s.)

5. The Bikini

Wikimedia Commons

Today’s go-to swimsuit for anyone who wants to show off her body, the bikini has fallen in and out of fashion through history. There is written evidence that women in Ancient Greece wore two-pieces, and the Romans actually memorialized the display of flesh in mosaics. Women during that time period wore them to work out, making the small scraps of cloth surprisingly modest when you consider what male athletes of the time were wearing.

When Pompeii was excavated they in the early 1800s, workers discovered a perfectly preserved statue of Venus wearing only a gold bikini. The King of Naples was so shocked by this find that he had it hidden away in a secret room, where only "mature persons of secure morals" were allowed to view it.

When bathing suits started coming back into fashion for women, even head-to-toe one-pieces were considered scandalous. But by 1913, Carl Janzen had introduced the two-piece. Suits continued to get skimpier, but it wasn’t until 1946 that the bikini as we know it was truly born. Louis Réard bet one of his friends that he could make the tiniest swimsuit in the world. His creation was so risqué that no model would wear it, and he had to hire a stripper to show it off on a beach. Soon people were clamoring for their own bikinis and Réard received over 50,000 fan letters, mostly from men.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Library of Congress
war
arrow
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
Original image
Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES