The Modesty and Manliness of the Codpiece

Like women who have their “essentials” when it comes to underwear clothing, men have them, too. Every one of us has to wear undergarments to protect our private parts, preserve our modesty, and look decent in other people’s eyes.

Of course, you know some types of underwear like briefs and boxer shorts. But not many of you may have heard of a codpiece.

Well, we can’t blame you, unless you are knowledgeable in fashion history. The codpiece is a pouch or covering flap that attaches to the front of trousers, enclosing the male genitalia. The codpiece was one of the popular items of clothing during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The codpiece was also a common feature of a long hose, which resembles women’s stockings or tights. During the 1400s and the 1500s, the codpiece was worn as underwear to protect a man’s private parts. But unlike most types of men’s underwear that are usually hidden beneath an outer garment, the codpiece is visible.

If you think whether the name has a “fishy” connotation, the term “codpiece” is derived from the Middle English term cod, which means “scrotum.”

For many years, the codpiece has long been an enigma among social and fashion historians, social psychologists, and ethnologists. But perhaps it needn’t be – apparently, there had been a practical reason for the codpiece’s existence, at least initially.

At the time, doublets – men’s fitting jackets popular in the Middle Ages – were getting smaller and shorter. As a result, a man’s private parts became unintentionally exposed, especially whenever he sat down or mounted a horse. That’s why men began to wear codpieces to cover their crotches. Most of the earliest codpieces were usually made of linen.

Since it was first introduced, the codpiece became one of menswear’s essentials during those centuries. Initially worn as a practical piece of clothing worn for modesty purposes, the codpiece later became a fashion statement. 

The codpiece was shaped like a sheath that fitted as close to a man’s “member” as possible. Consequently, the codpiece did a double purpose – while it covered the genitals, it also emphasized them. Men at the time seemed proud of showing off their codpieces because they were a statement of virility. The size and length of the codpiece were an indication of the wearer’s apparent masculinity. However, some gentlemen tried to exaggerate their status (masculine and otherwise) by stuffing their codpieces. According to Grace Q. Vicary, a cultural anthropologist, the codpiece’s primary function was “phallic connotations of aggressive virility display.”

When the codpiece peaked in popularity from the 1540s to the 1580s, it was padded to make it seem bigger and longer. Later codpieces feature decorations and embellishments. They were so elaborate to the point of becoming the object of ridicule from people who thought of them as outlandish.

Pier Maria Rossi di San Secondo by Parmagianino

The codpiece as “P.P.E.” against syphilis?

Since the codpiece was made to cover male genitals, there may have been a functional link between that and syphilis, a bacterial infection usually transmitted through sexual intercourse. The syphilis epidemic swept through Europe starting in 1494 or 1495 when the first recorded outbreak occurred in Naples, Italy. Syphilis was known at the time as “French pox” or “French disease” since it was claimed to have been spread by French troops.

Vicary offers another theory that the codpiece was made to contain a contagious disease – in this case, syphilis. According to her, treating syphilis was called for “a galaxy of herbs, minerals, syrups, and decoctions,” which were directly applied in a “variety of messy unguents and poultices.” To protect a man’s fancy clothing from stains created by such mess, he might as well isolate his genitals by covering them with “a large, boxy penis container,” Vicary writes. The codpiece could also contain the oozing pus from infected genitalia.

In addition, Renaissance guys carried a lot of swords, daggers, and other tools hanging from their belts. The codpiece, therefore, protected a man’s sensitive assets from being accidentally thumped and grazed by such sharp tools.

Does the codpiece still exist?

Later on, the codpiece was criticized by clerics and religious leaders. Queen Elizabeth I was also against the fashion. From the big, padded, and overstuffed codpiece, it became smaller again. By the 1600s, the codpiece had fallen out of fashion in favor of other undergarments, such as drawers. 

Bauer & Black jockstrapThe codpiece is no longer an everyday undergarment, but similar garments do exist. Perhaps the best-known modern derivative of the codpiece is the jock strap (above), which protects the genitals from injury during contact sports or any other vigorous physical activity.

The codpiece is also popular in heavy metal fashion. However, it became especially prominent among metal groups during the 1970s through the 1990s. At the time, rock musicians were constantly besieged by ravenous fans, especially during a live concert. Fearing that their “assets” would bear the brunt of such adoring assaults, they turned to wearing codpieces as protection from injury and harassment. 

Oderus Urungus of GWAR

Some of the rock metal codpieces were really elaborate, weird, and… well, epic, like this Cthulhu-styled codpiece worn by the late Oderus Urungus of the heavy metal group GWAR (above).

The codpiece also made a fleeting appearance on the high fashion catwalks. Fashion designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier have taken inspirations from the medieval codpiece to create similar garments that explore powerful themes of masculinity and sexuality. 

It seems that while the codpiece is no longer worn as a regular undergarment, the concept behind it did not disappear completely.