Vestigial design elements

It started with men’s underwear, but eventually led me to a very strange place.

From “The underwear elves of 2012” (here):

Why mention the functional fly? Because these days many briefs etc. are made with false flies — made to look like old-fashioned men’s Y-fronts (a bit of stylist retro), but without an opening that might ruin the line of the garment. The FIZX brief and trunk offer an actual convenience to the wearer (the jockstrap is of course flyless).

First, a look at the way briefs and similar underwear have developed, to yield the current situation, in which you can’t always tell from just looking at a garment whether it has a functional fly or not. That leads to the notion of vestigial design element and to repurposing of design elements. And that takes us to features of living things, in particular functional vs. non-functional (vestigial) organs, and also to the recruitment of older structures for new purposes. There’s an analogy here between evolutionary development and the history of design elements, but it’s only a loose analogy, and I believe that evolutionary biologists and historians of design are quite clear that although there are suggestive parallels between the two, the underlying mechanisms are significantly different.

But then the Intelligent Design people enter the picture, and things fall apart into remarkably confused thinking, a mess that I’m at a loss to make sense of.

I’ll start with a minimal pair: two trunks from the Laguna Beach Jean Co., modeled by the same man (who’s in phenomenally good shape): the LBJC Liz Trunk, with functional fly, and the LBJC Wysteria Trunk, without:

In a deep blue color paired with a contrast white trim and an eye-catching logo waistband, this Laguna Beach Jean Co. men’s underwear is designed to be shown off. Functional fly.

The Laguna Beach Jean Co. Wysteria men’s trunks also feature black trimming for contrast and a plush elastic waistband for lasting comfort.

(In the world of fashionable underwear, no fly is the default case; if the ad copy doesn’t mention a functional fly or the equivalent, there isn’t one.)

If you scrutizine the Liz, you can see that the right seam in the front of the garment is in fact open just a bit, and there’s no such evidence (however visually subtle) for the Wysteria.

Otherwise, the two garments are very similar in structure, except that the seams in the Liz are functional (the right one supports the fly opening, and the left one matches it to keep the garment from being unbalanced and bunching up uncomfortably; but the right seam on the Wysteria is vestigial — it’s the remnant of a functional seam (and then the left one balances it).

You can argue that the Wysteria’s seams are in fact functional, but not for structural reasons; instead, as in the Liz, it serves along with the left seam to form a pouch that supports the wearer’s genitals and, when made in contrastive colors to the rest of the garment, also accentuates them visually and so can serve to attract sexual partners for the wearer. You could in fact argue that the seams, with their pleasing symmetry, serve an aesthetic function as well.

This is a typical case: design features are (probably always) potentially or actually multifunctional; and the functions change over time, with features that earlier served one function repurposed so as to serve another and with some features simply becoming non-functional (vestigial), except as expressions of some continuity in appearance (which some people might experience as a function in itself: providing psychological or sociocultural coherence to the appearances of things).

Now let me backtrack some on men’s underpants, their design features, and the functions of these features. I’ll start with the basic functions of underpants, as protection of the body from its surround (especially clothes) and protection of clothes from the body and its effusions. For these purposes, all you need is is a cloth tube that will reliably stay in place (hence waistbands and seams). That’s panties (for women) or the plainest briefs (for men) — in the West at least, in white cloth (connoting cleanliness):

Note that such utterly plain briefs continue to be fashionable (if the name on the label is right).

(The vertical seam on this one is in the back. Alternatively, that seam can be in the front. Or both.)

These briefs constrain or confine the genitals (which can be seen as a function of the design). An alternative models men’s underpants on short pants for men — boxers, which I won’t look at further here, except to note that the fact that they leave the genitals hanging free can be seen as a useful function of the design. In any case, the boxers vs. briefs distinction (with briefs covering a very wide range of garments having specialized names of their own — distinctions that I’ll largely ignore here) is a central one.

Now we come to the solution to a practical problem for men in briefs: how to pee standing up. With a plain brief like the Park Avenue number above, a guy has to pull down the front of his briefs and pull his penis over the waistband. Ok, not so difficult to do — as a plain-briefs wearer, I do it all the time — but it’s possible to make the task easier by complicating the design of the briefs, specifically by introducing a fly, essentially a hole through which the penis can be pulled for urination. So we get fly briefs otherwise similar to the flyless ones above:

If the hole isn’t just to be gaping open all the time, the brief needs a flap of cloth that can be pushed aside for peeing but otherwise covers the hole. That introduces a vertical seam to anchor the hole mechanism (and a matching seam on the other side of the genitals), as above. (The main vertical seam, meanwhile, can be, as before, in the front or the back or both.)

The two-seam structure of a fly brief can then be exploited, as defining a pouch that gives additional support for the genitals — an extra function for the seams. In fact, the two-seam structure can be exported to flyless briefs, giving a pouch brief like this Contour® Basic Brief from Undergear:

Here the seams have lost their function in providing the convenience of a fly, but picked up the support function of the pouch they define.

And the way is open for some people to see a sexual-advertisement function in garments like the contour brief above; the trade name contour brief is telling. (The briefs I wear are in fact contour briefs from Undergear, a somewhat different model from the one in this photo (low-rise, cotton mesh, and colored) — though I don’t do much sexual advertisement in them.)

All of this can be managed by sticking to the world of tighty-whities. But the extra-support function and the sexual-advertisement function can be accentuated by the use of color contrasts, with possible other functions added in some cases. Here’s an Undergear Christmas ad with both these functions exaggerated (I’ve added Frank Lloyd Wright designs as background):

Or the intended effect can be playfulness or silliness:

Or simply aesthetically pleasing patterns and color combinations:

Then, pursuing the idea of vestigial design features, I searched on vestigial together with design and got a piece on the  Uncommon Descent: Serving the Intelligent Design Community website, beginning:

Vestigial Structures by Design
by William Demski 2/20/07

Vestigial structures in biology are commonly cited as evidence for evolution, and it may well be that they did evolve. But if it is evidence of evolution, it is evolution in the wrong direction — it’s not the sort of function enhancing/innovating evolution that is supposed to give evolutionary theory its bite. Vestigial structures, after all, are structures that have lost their function. If all of evolution proceeded in this fashion, we’d quickly descend to a world of nonfunctionality.

But vestigiality need not evolve by purely material means — it can also be designed. I was delighted to be informed (after my recent debate with Michael Shermer at Bridgewater College) of a nifty example of vestigial structures that arise not through “devolution” but rather through design, to wit, vestigial running boards on older automobiles.

Here’s a vestigial running board on a 1947 Ford coupe, which maintains some of the form of earlier (fully functional) running boards but without supplying a surface on which someone could stand:

The idea seems to be that this “running board” isn’t a survival from an earlier time, but a feature deliberately chosen by a car designer to remind people of earlier designs (perhaps to tap nostalgia).

At this point I started developing a headache, brought on by concerns about what people in this discussion mean by function(al) (note my remarks on multifunctionality, repurposing, and vestigiality) — and, more vexing, what they mean by design(er). In the real world, we talk about people doing design by creating artefacts (physical or intellectual) in a variety of contexts: graphic design, software design, hardware engineering, web design, industrial design, fashion design, costume design, furniture design, architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, etc. (There are turf wars about things like designers proper vs. engineers, but all these activities involve deliberate planning and crafting of artefacts. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to extend the label designer to creative artists in musical composition, painting and drawing, photography, writing, etc.)

Design in this broad sense has, as far as I can see, very little to do with the design of intelligent design: in this broad sense, there are a great many designers; they are in competition with one another; different designers stress different functions as central to their activities; and many considerations are relevant beyond those that people might class as functions in some narrow sense (though I was very generous in the way I viewed these matters in my discussions above). As the Wikipedia design entry puts it:

Designing often necessitates considering the aesthetic, functional, economic and sociopolitical dimensions of both the design object and design process.

Do Intelligent Designers consider such things? How? Who adjudicates between the different Designers? And so on.

Here I sign off. I simply don’t understand what’s going on in texts like Demski’s above.

5 Responses to “Vestigial design elements”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    As an old man whose erotic life and tastes run to horny old fat women, I found your very well designed presentation, well, uh, different.

    As a physician I’m familiar with vestigial structures, which abound in the human body, starting with the familiar vermiform appendix. But they certainly exist in clothing.

    For a long time I thought that the little pocket above the right front pocket in a pair of blue jeans was designed to catch my thumb when I tried to get my car keys out of my pants pocket, but I finally found out it’s called a “watch pocket” and once contained a pocket watch. It was repurposed (common with vestigial structures) as a place to put a can of spit tobacco. So now I cut the thumbcatcher pocket out of a pair of levis, partly because I don’t want to promote oral cavity cancer, but mostly so it won’t hook my thumb.

    Much more mysterious is the little cloth septum that divides the bottom of the right front pocket in most pairs of pants, and traps my car keys so I can’t get them out without taking everything out of the pocket. (Cutting the septum out is difficult to do without perforating the pocket.) But what in the world was the original purpose of this apparent vestige?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      On that little pocket above the right front pocket: many people have repurposed it as a change pocket. I used it that way until my right hand became disabled — and the damn pocket turned into a trap for my fingers that no longer work right.

      • Gary Says:

        I’ve always assumed that the purpose of the little secondary pocket was to preserve the line of the garment. When you put heavy items into the little pocket, they only put drag on the rear flap of the main pocket, not on the front flap.

    • Zack Says:

      It’s for your pocket watch, should you still have one.

  2. The H-fly « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] The innovation here — how long it’s been around, I don’t know — is the *horizontal* fly, a non-standard feature for fishing out your dick to pee. (For a long discourse on functional and vestigial flies in men’s underwear, look here.) […]

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