This article comes from the upcoming digital edition of George Khoury’s Comic Book Fever, available for pre-order via TwoMorrows Publishing.
As a kid, there was nothing worse than the ordeal of getting dragged to a department store by your mother to buy underwear—boooring! It’s as mundane an activity as mundane gets in life. In 1978, all of that came to an end with the arrival of Underoos, the colorful underwear that empowered youngsters everywhere to feel like a superhero. For the boys and girls of Generation X, Underoos were the first articles of clothing many would fall in love with… the very first chance we had to look and feel like our favorite comic book heroes and heroines.
Underoos are the brainchild of Larry Weiss, a gifted imagineer and businessman (with a background in experimental psychology) with a magic touch for creating products tailored towards children. As a product group manager for Post Cereal, he created two pop culture breakfast staples in Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles when he had the genial idea of making Flintstones licensed cereals. Later, as an independent entrepreneur, he turned his attention to creating a line of kids’ toiletries featuring the beloved Archie characters, but the overloaded project crashed before it even lifted off. Undeterred, Weiss found a silver lining amidst the ashes of his Archie project.
Larry Weiss says:
“Somebody came to me one day while I was working on the Archie toiletries, and said, ‘Can you do something with T-shirts? We want to make a pitch to Hanes Underwear.’ I said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t put a picture of Archie on it like a polo shirt. Let me think about that.’ I went home and I sketched out Underoos. I didn’t know they were Underoos at the time. I just sketched out Superman, Shazam, Iron Man, Green Lantern, you know, just clear and easy to make those for pictures. I looked at that and said, ‘Hmm, that’s good, that’s nice.’
“I’m a cartoon lover. When I was a kid that was my escape in the ’40s. My uncle was an assistant pharmacist in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which was a Jewish, downscale community, and I thought that was the height of great work, to be an assistant pharmacist, because every month all the cartoons came in. So he’d make me a hot fudge sundae and sit me down and let me read all the comics, which I had to be very careful not to get any ice cream on. But I read every single comic book: Tales from the Crypt, Archie, Looney Tunes, Richie Rich, everything. I loved them.”
In an era of cheap Ben Cooper plastic Halloween costumes and decades before cosplay was all the rage in fashion (the modern day trend of adults dressing up as superheroes), the businessman innocently conceived a line of children’s undergarments that faithfully incorporated the lively designs and bright colors of Marvel and DC Comics characters. These weren’t novelty items, but practical everyday wear meant to survive the daily grind of being a kid.
Larry Weiss envisioned children embracing this product’s concept wholeheartedly, because he, himself, has never lost that sense of wonder.
“They feel the same escape, and the same pleasure, and the same connection with the old mythologies is what really worked. It’s not only escape… it’s an escape to something, from where you are, from whatever constraints of suburbia, or parental control, and so forth. It’s a way of participating in an ancient folklore. It’s like fairy tales. Grimm’s fairy tales were the same thing. They were all done long before the Grimm Brothers did them. That was the eighteenth century execution of those characters. So the cartoons did it, and I wanted to capitalize on it in the sense of doing something that would really work, that kids would like. Because I remembered when I was growing up, there was the Davy Crocket cap. And I said, ‘By God, one day I want to do something like that, that makes kids really happy, that they really want to use.’
“I just liked the whole idea of being able to do a thing like that that just got every kid in the culture excited and happy. I had to have one, everybody had to have one, and it just made you feel good. Davy Crockett was, in a way, a cartoon character with a mythology about him. He was Odysseus. That’s who Davy Crockett was, and the Deer Slayer [too]. These are Odysseus, these are the travelers. Every one of these [heroes] that works over time is really just a contemporary execution of an ancient mythological character. Those were the good Underoos, and that’s why kids loved them. They loved them because they recognized the authenticity of them. And they could, for a brief time, become that character.”
When it came time to name the product, Weiss named them Underoos—but where does a name like that originate?
“I was building these for my kids. I had kids at that time, and they were five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years old, in that range. And my nine-year-old son, who was actually autistic at the time—he’s now one of the few who’s come out of it, and got a good job, and family, and he’s quite normal. But I asked him one day, ‘What are these things, Billy?’ because the agency working on it were having trouble naming them. They were thinking of calling them TV Strips and Comic Strips, funny things that I just didn’t like, that had double entendre to them. I said, ‘Billy, what are these?’ And he said, ‘They’re Underoos, Dad.’ And I said, ‘Billy, you’re right. They are Underoos.’ It’s like an angel gave him that name, because it’s as if he had lived in the future and came back to today and said, ‘Well, those are Underoos, Dad.’ It was like, ‘You are absolutely right, Billy. These are Underoos.’ And that’s how they got named.”
Before licensing comics, television, and movie properties was big business, Weiss and his Underoos proposal were shot down by the executives at Hanes. Weiss says:
“I sold Underoos to Fruit of the Loom. Hanes decided it was going to be a fad and they didn’t want to do it, and I was working with [the Scott Paper Company], and we were using Fruit of the Loom, which is a very conservative company. It would never do a thing like this on [its] own. We were using them as a supplier of blanks, that is, ‘Just make colored underwear, colored pants, colored shirts, and put a colored belt on them, and we’ll buy those in bulk from you. We’ll put the logo on and package it.’ … Union Underwear [as Fruit of the Loom was then known] was just the supplier of raw materials, sort of the product itself, the blank product.
“Scott decided not to do it. They chickened out also. It was just too different from their toilet paper business, so they said, ‘We’re not going to do it.’ Fruit of the Loom said, ‘Well, can we do it?’ And they introduced me to Fruit of the Loom, and I met Jim Johnston there, and the chairman, and told them, ‘I’ll give you the same deal that I was going to give Scott Paper, and Hanes before them.’ They said, ‘Okay, we want to do it.’ Because they looked at it, at this point, as just underwear, and they wanted to do something special for children, and then they thought this was just right.”
In 1977 Weiss sold the Underoos concept to the Union Underwear Company. The company immediately went into production and released the brand the very next year. The initial line-up featured many of the most popular heroes and heroines (Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, etc.) from DC and Marvel Comics. With a suggested retail price of $4.99, each unit was packaged within a sturdy, colorful record jacket-sized package that contained one top along with one brief for boys or one panty for girls.
The masterstroke of the entire concept was how beautifully each entry captured the feel of each individual character simply by incorporating their emblem, colors, and costume design. From the minute they hit the store shelves, Underoos were an immediate hit embraced by boys and girls far and wide. Made in various combinations of cotton and polyester, even parents approved of them for their durability and practicality.
“Yeah, they did it just right, and they paid me, and the checks cleared the bank, and we had a three-year payout, which it did in the first year, it just sold so much. It was introduced, actually, in three test markets. One of the test markets was the New York Metro area, which I really urged them to do because if you want to start a real trend, you do it in New York. And it worked, and people were bootlegging it all around the country out of the test market, so Union figured that, ‘This is going to go.’ Even Sears, Sears Roebuck at the time, they put it in their catalog. It was their only product that was not a Sears product in the Sears stores and the Sears catalog. It was very, very hot.
“I lost control of the product when I sold it to Fruit of the Loom. I gave them instructions on what to do, and for about two or three years, they followed my instructions, which were to locate the main characters, and then have the minor characters like the Penguin, Joker, Robin, all the secondary characters appear for a brief time, then disappear for years, so that they become rare products, they’re hard to find, and the basic 16 characters, you rotate them in a certain way so they stay fresh. And what I urged them to do was not put any contemporary characters in it. Keep the old ones.”
At the start of the 1980s, Underoos lines expanded quickly by adding additional cartoon properties and characters from contemporary television and film hits like Star Wars and The Dukes of Hazzard. Gradually the newer releases piled up and their design got away from their heroic costume-like designs that made them a success. Many newer releases featured shirts that sported no-frills stock images. No matter how many dollars are spent on market research, the kids’ market is incredibly difficult to steer, and children weren’t as enamored with the subsequent Underoos based on the latest fads. Another charming element lost over the years was the cardboard display that originally packaged them (now replaced by clear plastic and a small header).
Thirty years later, Fruit of the Loom still makes Underoos, and consumers continue to respond enthusiastically to the core wave based on characters like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man which have never stopped selling. All of this is proof that a great idea lives forever.
The appeal of comics and animation is not lost upon Larry Weiss. He was able to discover the fountain of youth that Juan Ponce de León never did. “It’s those cartoon characters, thinking about them will keep you fresh. My mother, by the way, when I was reading all those cartoons and comic books when I was a little kid in the ’40s, was always arguing with my uncle, because she said, ‘He’s never going to amount to anything if he reads all those comic books. They’re going to ruin his mind.’ But what it did, of course, is it just makes your imagination very fertile and work. And it was funny, I reminded her of that after Underoos had come out and it had made millions of dollars. I said, ‘Hey, Mom! Remember what you said about the comic books?’ She said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”
Comic Book Fever by George Khoury will be released on June 22nd, 2016. You can pre-order the physical or digital editions here.