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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Underwear

Is throwing panties at your idol flattering? Is Superman wearing his undies on the outside? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Underwear! Will feminists ever stop burning bras? And is it really kilt-to-dick or GTFO? 

Lie #1: Superman Wears His Underpants On The Outside

They aren’t underpants. They have beltloops

Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster were emulating the look of circus strongmen when they put his costume together — the combination of tights and trunks was one that accentuated musculature while also concealing necessary thunder.

Given that Superman draws his strength from the Sun, as skintight a costume as possible makes sense to allow light through, as a baggier outfit, however light-permeable the fabric, could bunch up. The trunks, though, are a bit controversial within the fan community, with a split between traditionalists and those that see the trunks as a silly holdover from another era, something non-fans can use to dismiss everything. Underpants on the outside? That’s dumb!

2016, however, saw a further revelation. In Action Comics #967, Superman (sporting a costume with a belt but no undies, known as the Rebirth costume) is shown a picture of the iconic costume by his son Jon, aka Superboy. “It wasn’t underwear, Jon,” says Superman. “It was part of the suit, a decorative element, all sewn together as one piece.”

So, the red underpant-alikes (which are back now) aren’t even a separate part. They’re built in, like when T-shirts have fake sleeves — a thing again thanks to K-pop — or Sagz Jeans, the jeans with the built-in underpants. 

Clark Kent: what a dork.

Lie #2: “I Like This Artist So Much I Should Throw My Underwear at Them!”

Should you, though? Nobody knows more about having underwear thrown at them than Carlton Banks’ hero Sir Tom Jones, a veteran of some six decades of panty-catapulting. “It’s Not Unusual” is both his signature tune and an accurate description of how likely he is to take a flung gusset to the face during any given song.

And he hates it. Hates it, hates it, hates it. He plays to the crowd, of course — stopping a gig and shouting, “Can you just keep your fucking underpants to yourselves, you animals?” would be unprofessional after all — but he still very much hates it.

The ritual began in the Copacabana nightclub in New York in 1968, where close quarters and a rambunctious show meant Jones was sweating heavily, being handed napkins by patrons who sat mere feet from him. “This one lady stood up, and just lifted up her dress and took her underwear off and handed ‘em to me,” he told WBUR in 2015. “So I wiped my brow with the underwear and handed them back and said, ‘Watch you don’t catch cold like that,’ and it just went from there. But it became a joke then, people were bringing them in bags, saying, ‘There’s Tom Jones, throw underwear at him!’”

While he told Larry King that it was “a sexy thing in the beginning,” it soon became something of joke, reaching the point where the first pairs would be thrown before he’d even taken to the stage. In his autobiography, he describes piles of underwear being swept from the stage after shows by stage managers with enormous brooms, all flung into the trash. 

When singing soulful ballads and giving them his all, only to be lightly grazed by a lightly soiled thong frisbee-ed from Row H, he would find himself apoplectic with rage, describing the practice as “just wrong — I’m laying my soul down and people start laughing.”

If you really want to show an artist you love them, applaud politely while fully dressed.

Lie #3: “Hey! Buy Yourself These Underpants!”

Ads might say that now, but for a long time, underwear marketing was based around the idea that the person doing the buying and the person doing the wearing might be very different.

A lot of the big names in women’s underwear explicitly marketed their products to men, pushing glamour and fantasy rather than comfort or practicality. Victoria’s Secret, for instance, has always explicitly marketed to men, something that has seen their once-huge market share suffer in recent years as more female-owned alternatives have popped up with once-mad concepts like “comfortable to wear all day” and “being on, rather than in, the asscrack” at the center of their approach. It’s also led to a lot more diversity of body type and skin color in lingerie marketing, as well as improved online fitting services. It’s almost like women are better at knowing what they want to wear than, for instance, Leslie Wexner, 82-year-old chairman emeritus of Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands and close friend of the late Jeffrey Epstein. Who’d have thought?

Meanwhile, men’s underwear was marketed at women and gay men, the assumption being that straight men were so lazy and incapable of giving a shit that their partners would buy their underpants. This seems to be truer than it should be, albeit getting less so: In 1985, women were thought to buy between 65 and 80 percent of men’s underwear. By 2012, in the U.K. at least, the amount of men who reported their wives, girlfriends or moms bought their undies was down to two-thirds. And one survey earlier this year found that over half of men now buy their own underpants

Well done, everybody. Have a cookie.

Lie #4: Feminists Just Love Burning Bras!

Nobody set out to burn bras. In 1968, the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City was the subject of a protest by the organization New York Radical Women. A massive Women’s Liberation banner was unfurled within the event, with chanting protesters being removed by the police. Outside on the boardwalk, 400 or so protestors gathered with signs, pamphlets and a live sheep, which was crowned and paraded around to draw parallels between the beauty contest and a county fair livestock sale.

Another part of the protest involved filling a “Freedom Trash Can” with objects representing female oppression. Girdles, corsets, makeup, mops, high heels and copies of Cosmopolitan and Playboy all went into it, along with a bra or two.

A write-up of the event in the New York Post compared flinging the items into the trash with Vietnam protestors burning their draft cards. The headline, “Bra Burners and Miss America,” was taken literally, and because people love alliteration, bra-burning captured the public imagination, frequently used to dismiss feminist arguments or trivialize the movement. 

Forty years after the event, organizer Carol Hanisch told NPR: “The media picked up on the bra part. I often say that if they had called us ‘girdle burners,’ every woman in America would have run to join us.”

Lie #5: A True Scotsman Wears Nothing Under His Kilt

For non-Celts, a kilt is a baffling item. The notion that a skirt shape equals feminine is so ingrained that it adorns toilet doors around the world, and the thought of knee-high socks and little bits you tie up can seem, well, girly. Yet a kilt is clearly masculine as all hell, worn for flinging enormous logs long distances and kicking the shit out of anything that needs the shit kicking out of it. 

“If you’re in the military, you don’t wear anything under there,” says James, a 37-year-old Scotsman now living in London. “Otherwise, do what you like. If it’s a rental, though, wear something under it — you don’t know where it’s been.”

The custom of going commando beneath your tartan is thought to have started in the military, and become more widely adopted as something of a badge of honor, a way of one-upping each another. However, wishing for an extra layer of fabric between your testicles and the elements doesn’t make anyone less Scottish. Comedian Billy Connolly, arguably the country’s most beloved entertainer (who, admittedly, lives in Florida), wears briefs under his kilt. Highland dancers sport black undergarments so high jumps don’t present audiences with unsolicited dick-views.

Approaching a stranger and quizzing them about their underwear would generally be seen as unacceptable, but somehow, if there’s a folk tradition involved it’s a free-for-all. “People — non-Scottish people — will often ask if you’re wearing it like a ‘true Scotsman,’ and there’s no correct answer,” says James. “If they’re asking, whatever you say, they’re going to check for themselves in three drinks’ time.”