One look at Leonard Whiting’s Romeo in Frank Zifferelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet and I fell in love with the codpiece and Leonard Whiting. I will also admit that Whiting’s codpiece was not the only thing I liked about him, what gay boy sitting in English class watching Romeo and Juliet can forget seeing Romeo’s beautiful naked butt. However, this post is not about the beauty of Leonard Whiting, it’s about the history of the codpiece. If you are not familiar with this piece of Renaissance fashion, a codpiece (from Middle English: cod, meaning “scrotum”) is a covering flap or pouch that attaches to the front of the crotch of men’s trousers and usually accentuates the genital area. It was held closed by string ties, buttons, or other methods. It was an important item of European clothing in the 15th and 16th centuries
One may well ask, if the button fly preceded the zipper, and the codpiece preceded the button fly, what preceded the codpiece? The answer is, quite literally, nothing. Leather leggings, the antecedents of Renaissance hosiery, were merely tubes of animal skins held on by strips of leather and connected together rather perfunctorily at the top. In fact, the crotch was most often left almost completely open, for ease of access during those “privy” functions. One was protected from exposure of one’s “person” by tunics which reached the knees or beyond.
However, with the rise of the merchant class at the beginning of the Renaissance, came “Fashion Trends”. Clothing for the poor remained functional, of course, but for the wealthy, changing one’s fashion to follow, or build on, a social trend became a way of displaying one’s wealth, and for men, one’s masculinity. With the use of the newly popular button, fashions became more fitted and tight to the body, (no need to cut a garment loose so that it could fit over one’s head). Thus, the popular look became long, elegant, and youthful.
To achieve this look to an even greater degree, the waistline of the tunic was dropped to the hips to make the body look longer, and the hemline was shortened to make the legs look longer. By 1360 men’s hems rose to mid-thigh. This was a shocking event indeed, considering that the basic design of men’s hosiery had not changed. When a man sat, or mounted a horse, one might have quite a “regimental” view of his state of affairs. The clergy, (those who were not themselves following the fashion), as well as other guardians of public morals, were up in arms. In Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” the Parson criticizes these short garments for their revealing nature:
Alas! some of them show the very boss of the penis and the horrible pushed-out testicles that look like the malady of hernia in the wrapping of their hose, and the buttocks of such persons look like the hinder parts of a she-ape in the full of the moon. And moreover, the hateful proud members that they show by the fantastic fashion of making one leg of their hose white and the other red, make it seem that half of their privy members are flayed. And if it be that they divide their hose in other colors, as white and black, or white and blue, or black and red, and so forth, then it seems, by the variation of color, that the half of their privy members are corrupted by the fire of Saint Anthony, or by cancer, or by other such misfortune.
During the years 1420-40 tunic hemlines 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 the permanent exposure of that zone.”
The next fashion trend was to go about in one’s hose and shirt, (the shirt being what we think of as a doublet with a chemise worn underneath), sans the tunic. Measures had to be taken! (Please pardon the pun.) In 1482 Edward IV introduced a law which forbade persons below the rank of Lord to expose their private parts by short doublets. People ignored it. Finally the public outcry became too fierce, and, since men would certainly not be inconvenienced by simply sewing the crotch seam shut, the codpiece was invented.
To begin with, it was simply a triangular piece of fabric tied at the three corners, or stitched at the bottom angle and tied at the top two angles, over the gap in the front of the hose. However, men quickly discovered, as they are wont to do, that what might have been revealed before as somewhat lacking in size and stature, could be easily artificially enhanced under the masque of this new fashion. Over the next century, the codpiece developed from a flat piece of fabric, to a pouch in which the “family jewels” rested in as protruding a manner as possible, to a padded pouch, to a very padded pouch, (some of them very oddly shaped), until finally the pouch idea was discarded altogether, along with any pretense to function, and large padded shapes of bizarre dimensions were tied onto either hose or shirt, the “items of value” simply residing behind these bombastic shapes.
It has been assumed that the fashion of genital promotion was de rigeur, however, no thought appears to have been given to the possibility that the codpiece fashion developed because of necessity and not by whim. From 1495 onwards a pandemic of a new disease swept across Europe and was a great plague. The disease caused foul and large volumes of mixed pus and blood to be discharged from the genital organs and the swellings in the adjacent groin tissue. The mess would require bulky woolen wads and woven cloth bandages to be applied, distorting the whole of the genital area and the lower abdomen.
The new disease was syphilis, and in all probability was not a new disease; there are descriptions of illnesses involving the fundamental findings for the diagnosis of syphilis from ancient times, though it is most often assumed to have traveled back from the Americas with Columbus’s men.
Though syphilis may have added to the popularity of the codpiece, one need to only look to gay men’s fashion today to see how we still like to accentuate the penis. Whether it’s Andrew Christian or CN-2, underwear marketed mostly to gay men do their best to accentuate the crotch area.