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So....what exactly is a Codpiece?

The codpiece emerged (no pun intended!) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries from the dilemma of how to cover a man's genitals when the jackets or doublets became shorter. The height of its popularity was during the early sixteenth century when it became an elaborate yet functional part of men's costume.

Picture of men wearing codpieces (GIF, 112K).

However, the drawing of emphasis to the male genitalia actually occurred at an earlier time when the 'long' look became popular. In the mid-fourteenth century, the waistline was dropped to the hips in order to make the body look longer, and the hemline was shortened in order to make the legs look longer. From the 1340s to the 1360s mens' hems rose from the knee to mid-thigh with the result that, when a man was sitting down or mounting his horse, there was a clear view all the way up his hose to his drawers. For the first time in western fashion the male genitals were being flaunted for all to see! The result was that the male bulge was to be the center of attention for the next 200 years.

Of course, all of this was an affront to the Church that considered that the body was sinful and should be covered. When the Black Death hit Europe in 1347, the Church was quick to declare that this was, in fact, divine punishment for the sinful clothes men were wearing. However, terrible that the Plague was, it did not put a stop to the fashion and afterward coats continued to grow shorter and things became ever more fanciful.

Picture of men wearing codpieces (GIF, 60K).

From the 1420s-1440s, the hemlines of tunics reached the top of the thigh, and the occasional glimpse of the male sexual organs that had caused such an outcry in the fourteenth century, was now replaced by permanent exposure of that zone. The next step was sensational, and the look came directly from farmworkers and building laborers. In the summer, they often removed their tunics and waistcoats and worked in their underwear: the waist-long doublet and the hose laced to it. When it became really hot and particularly when harvesting, they went even further...down to their shirt and breeches.

Amazingly, the popularity of this then extended out in to the general public. For the working class to be out in their underwear was just another sign of their vulgar ways, but for the aristocracy to do the same was astonishing. This trend of exposing the male form was adopted by young men of good families, perhaps as a rebellious fashion statement not unlike those adopted by youth today.

The codpiece, or braguette (not a French loaf bread!), had to be invented to fill up the gap between the hose in the front, through which the breeches gaped. The hose that men wore were not like pantyhose of today. The legs were covered but the posterior and anterior were not. Inverted triangular sections were sewn between the legs of the hose on the front and back to cover these areas.

Never wanting to leave well enough alone, the fashion makers of the time began to play with this frontal covering by padding, decorating, and shaping. The codpiece became a larger prominent style and at its pinnacle of elaboration resembled a cresent shape, suggestive of the male sex organ size.

After two hundred years of being flaunted and padded, the decade of the 1550s saw the codpiece vertical. Spanish pride was boasting of its acheivements and its conquest of the new worlds, and what could be better to illustrate this than a phallic exhibition padded into a permanent erection? Just as victorious troops would rape the women of a conquered city, the codpiece vertical raped the world.

Ironically enough the Spanish-Hapsburg court which promoted this arrogant look was the very court that brought about its demise. Since the codpiece had reached the extreme upright position, the only way to go next was back down. The breeches grew wider and ever more padded with the developing fashion of the time, and the codpiece disappeared into the bulk.

The codpiece, or its equivalent, has since remained essentially extinct, except in the domains of various subcultures and rock-stars! Today, mens' genitals are thoroughly ignored, shunned, avoided - when was the last time you saw male nudity, as opposed to female nudity, on the large or small screen. However, according to one school of thought, the day is not far off when they will again receive the attention they deserve. Perhaps the return of the codpiece is the only way to do this. The recent 'exposure' of the penis with the John Bobbitt trial has for the first time thrust male genitalia into the media limelight. This may be an omen of things to come!

Most fashion trends go full circle, and as such, the codpiece is well overdue for a comeback.

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Last modified: Monday 20th November, 1995
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