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.