That wear a codpiece, thereby to disclose
What sex they are
he pointed to the primary purpose of a codpiece: to emphasize the gender of its wearer. Codpieces appeared in Europe in the early sixteenth century, during a period of economic and territorial expansion, in which the conspicuous display of virility, in public life, sport, warfare, and dress played a major part in a competitive culture of self-presentation, self-aggrandisement, and advertisement. They were designed, along with doublets with massive chests and coats with wide shoulders, to enhance and exaggerate the masculine attributes of the wearer, to ‘disclose’ rather than conceal or contain, the ‘sex they are’.
Codpieces were a distinctive feature of late Renaissance male dress in Italy, Spain, France, and England, reaching their peak of popularity in the mid sixteenth century, before gradually disappearing by the end of the century. They evolved from the pouch-shaped flap which was used to close the front of the close-fitting hose worn by men in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. By the early sixteenth century, the front flap on men's breeches and hose was no longer a flat pouch, but had become a protuberance, often padded and stiffened, to support and accentuate the male genitals. It was essentially a bag made of fabric, usually silk, and was often elaborately embroidered and decorated, either made of the same material as the trunk hose or breeches, or to match the doublet or other upper garments, to which it was fastened by points or lacings. In addition to the padding and ornamentation on the codpiece itself, further attention was drawn to the groin area by the positioning of dagger and sword belts just above it, the dagger often worn with the hilt pointing to or framing the codpiece, creating a visual dialogue between codpiece and dagger, thus amplifying and doubling the phallus.
From its introduction early in the sixteenth century, until its disappearance from fashion in the 1590s, the codpiece served as an emblem for manhood, the part standing for the whole. As Marston's 1598 quote above makes evident, even after its demise, it retained its metaphorical associations with masculine essence. The codpiece, with its sexual connotations, represented the uncontrollable carnal impulses that warred against the rational soul of man. The idea of the sexual organs having a ‘will’ of their own, independent of their owner's intentions, was a well-established one, dating from St Augustine's laments regarding the ‘uprisings’ of the flesh. Yet these sexual urges afflict all mankind, and everyone is a victim of his libidinous desires. Hence a character in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure condemns judging a man too harshly for a universal weakness: ‘For the rebellion of a codpiece, to take away the life of a man?’
During a brief period in the 1570s and 80s in England, around the time that the codpiece was falling into disrepute in male fashion, it became the name for a roughly analogous ornament or appendage, worn by women on the breast. Like the fashion, late in the sixteenth century, of women wearing doublets like those worn by men, the practice of women sporting ‘codpieces’ on their chests may have exacerbated the anxieties of moralists concerned about the adoption by women of masculine attributes and habits, including those of dress. Pamphlets like Hic Mulier (1620) dwelt at length on the insidious dangers presented by a new race of ‘mankind women’ or female transvestites who usurped male dress and customs such as smoking, swearing, and brawling in public.
Ribeiro, A. and and Cumming, V. (1989). The visual history of costume. Batsford, London.
Wilcox, R. T. (1958). The mode in costume: a history of men's and women's clothes and accessories from Egypt 3000 bc to the present. Charles Scriber & Sons, New York.
The codpiece was a distinguishing feature of men's dress from 1408 to about 1575 c.e. Originally a triangle of cloth used to join the individual legs of men's hose, the codpiece emerged as a nonverbal statement of political and economic power.
The codpiece began as a solution to changing fashion. Throughout the Renaissance, various forms of the doublet-and-hose combination characterized men's dress. A doublet was a fitted, often quilted jacket that varied in length from above the knee to the natural waist. Hose were individually tailored legs of woven fabric cut on the bias grain. Each leg was stitched up the back and laced to the doublet, similar to the system of garter belts and stockings used by women in the middle twentieth century. An early version of underpants made of linen or
wool was worn underneath. As doublets shortened, hose were cut longer and wider to cover the underpants up to the waist. Across the genitals, a triangular gusset laced to the front of the hose between the legs. It satisfied decency requirements and calls of nature. By the sixteenth century, the codpiece was both shaped and padded. Squire and Baynes report that the term "cod" was both a Renaissance-era word for bag and a slang word for testicles. By the mid-1500s, the embellishment of the codpiece with jewels and embroidery exaggerated the genitals so that little was left to the imagination.
Once the codpiece achieved a pouch shape, it was used for a variety of purposes, including as a purse for small objects. When the fitted doublet/hose/codpiece combination is compared with the ankle-length, draped, and pleated robes of earlier periods, Renaissance men's dress appears slim and ready for action. However, the bias cut of woven hose, while more elastic than straight grain, does not allow for a full range of movement. The successful application of knitting to create fine, well-fitting hose contributed to the decline of the codpiece by the turn of the seventeenth century.
Clear examples of the codpiece can be seen in sixteenth-century court portraits by Clouet, Titian, and Holbein. During this period, men's dress extended the body into an overall horizontal silhouette. Codpiece, shoulders, and doublet were padded; luxury fabrics were slashed and their contrasting linings pulled out through the slits; and heavy gold chains were draped from shoulder to shoulder. Squire and Baynes describe the "aggressive solidity of appearance" and the "fantastic air of brutality" (1975, p. 66). Squire describes the fashionable man as, "broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, while a proudly displayed virility between his legs projected forcefully through the skirts of his jerkin" (1974, p. 52). In fact, the sixteenth century was a period of aggressive kingdom building in which more and more power was consolidated into the hands of fewer, very strong individuals. The codpiece contributed, in part, to the visible, and not at all subtle, expression of the power and the spirit of those times.
Boucher, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Squire, Geoffrey. Dress and Society: 1560–1970. New York: Viking, 1974.
Squire, Geoffrey, and Pauline Baynes. The Observer's Book of European Costume. London: Frederick Warne and Company, Ltd., 1975.
Tortora, Phyllis, and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume. 3rd ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1998.
Sandra Lee Evenson
During the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, the most common everyday clothing for men was a kind of short jacket or overshirt called a doublet worn with thick woolen, linen, or silk hose. The hosiery of the time consisted of two separate stockings that covered the legs but left an opening at the top that exposed the wearer's genitals. To preserve modesty and protect the genitals, medieval tailors invented the codpiece around the mid-1400s. The codpiece, called a braguette in French, was a flap or pouch of fabric sewn at the top of a man's hose to hide his genitals from view.
While the codpiece was originally created to provide modesty, it evolved into a fashion statement. By the early 1500s, the codpiece had grown larger and more decorative and had become a way to advertise one's masculinity, by exaggerating the size of his genitals. Though doublets became long enough to cover the genitals, most had a special opening in the front for the codpiece to stick through in a visible way. Some codpieces were even designed to curve upward to resemble an erect penis. Fashionable men, led by England's King Henry VIII (1491–1547), padded their codpieces to enormous sizes and decorated them with jewels. Some even used them as a sort of pocket, hiding small weapons or valuables there.
Priests and other clergy were horrified by the new style and spoke out against it. The codpiece did indeed get smaller by the mid-1500s, possibly because Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was the new ruler of England and did not appreciate this example of male vanity. By 1575 the codpiece had disappeared, replaced by short padded breeches, or pants, which provided coverage.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
All the Rage. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Sichel, Marion. History of Men's Costume. London, England: Batsford, 1984.
A codpiece is a piece of fabric fashioned into a pouch used to cover and hold a man's genitals. The term is derived from the Middle English cod, meaning "bag" or "scrotum." Originally nothing more than a triangular piece of cloth tied at the three corners, the codpiece developed into an impressive, self-sustaining sartorial construction that soon shed its original utilitarian function to become an unabashed statement of masculinity and male ego.
The codpiece first appeared in Europe in the mid-fourteenth century when the hemline of men's tunics reached midthigh, placing the unprotected genitals at risk of exposure or discomfort. By the mid-fifteenth century, when hemlines reached the top of the thighs, the codpiece became both obligatory and swank. Codpieces were often constructed with fabric of contrasting color, elaborately embellished with bows, jeweled pins, and embroidery, or stuffed and slashed as fashion might dictate, all to draw attention to the male genitals. They could also serve as pouches for coins, kerchiefs, pins, and other paraphernalia. Codpieces also served as venues for male boasting and exhibitionism, and this naturally attracted the wrath of preachers and the derision of literary wits.
After its heyday in the 1530s and 1540s, when it was often sizable, loaf shaped, and protruding, the codpiece in the 1550s and 1560s began to wane in size and splendor, becoming smaller, more oval shaped, and set closer to the body, though it was still erect. By the 1570s to 1580s the codpiece disappeared completely behind the ample folds of the new male fashion for voluminous trunk hose, a victim of a changing political and cultural climate conditioned by the spread of the various religious reform movements, as well as by the presence on the throne—or immediately behind it—of powerful female figures such as Elizabeth I of England and Catherine de Médicis, which made such unabashed statements of virility and male sexuality rather unadvisable.
Eisenbichler, Konrad. 1988. "Bronzino's Portrait of Guidobaldo II Della Rovere." Renaissance and Reformation 24(1): 21-33.
Persels, Jeffery C. 1997. "Bragueta Humanística, or Humanism's Codpiece." Sixteenth Century Journal 28(1): 79-99.
Simons, Patricia. 1994. "Alert and Erect: Masculinity in Some Italian Renaissance Portraits of Fathers and Sons." In Gender Rhetorics: Postures of Dominance and Submission in History, ed. Richard C. Trexler. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.