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Old Master Paintings

Codpieces: Style on the Rise

Worn in courts across Europe primarily in the 16th century, codpieces were a potent symbol of their wearer’s masculinity and virility. Less than subtle even when in fashion, these flagrant accessories can be unsettlingly prominent to the modern eye. Yet in the context of courtly life – so steeped in honour, chivalry and romance – the adoption of codpieces was not so startling. At a time when continuing the family line was of the utmost importance, such embellishments were generally accepted displays of fertility and masculinity. And while codpieces stood out as blatant celebrations of men’s nether regions, the body parts themselves remained strictly unmentionable – they were usually referred to with colourful euphemisms instead. In fact in England, cod was everyday slang for testicles.  

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JAKOB SEISENEGGER’S 1548 PORTRAIT OF ARCHDUKE FERDINAND OF TYROL.
© KUNSTHISTORISCHES MUSEUM, VIENNA   

Having begun life as triangular flaps of cloth serving as humble flies, codpieces were first laced in place below the waist, covering the gap between the two legs of a gentleman’s hose or leg coverings. In the 15th century, men wore stockings with a loose gown, which King Edward IV’s parliament soundly decreed, in 1463, were to “cover his privy Members and Buttockkes.” Despite Edward’s appeal for decorum, however, gown hems crept ever higher. By the end of the 15th century, young men were commonly strutting around in cropped waist-length doublets, with tight hose and stockings that left little to the imagination. Whether to preserve men’s modesty or, conversely, to enhance their manhood, evolving fashions made it gradually acceptable for men to add a little extra padding to their package. And so before long, codpieces took on a life of their own, brazenly unfurling from the groin in scrolls or rising in unabashed satin salute, such as that modelled by the solemn Pietro Maria Rossi in his circa 1535 portrait by Parmigianino.

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A CONTEMPORARY CODPIECE IN MONCLER GAMME BLEU’S SPRING/SUMMER 2012 COLLECTION SHOW.
© KARL PROUSE, CATWALKING  

If exaggerated codpieces first emerged in military dress – with soldiers’ armour jutting out at the groin to form a metal-clad cocoon cossetting the family jewels – at court, standard machismo soon overtook practicality, and these peculiar elements of men’s dress quickly became assertions of masculinity. Once solely meant as protective padding, codpieces crossed over into everyday wear to become ostentatiously plush accessories. Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, cut a mean figure in armour when he sat for Bronzino around 1531, but try as we might to take him seriously, our eyes are immediately drawn to the magnificent crimson codpiece protruding beneath the steel. Brocaded in gold thread and decoratively slashed at the sides, Guidobaldo’s codpiece is at once luxurious and grandiose.

Even boys sported them at the time. While Alonso Sánchez Coello’s 1574 portrait of Archduke Wenceslaus of Austria shows him in a codpiece at the ripe age of fifteen, young males wore them as early as age seven, when boys were “breeched,” moving from the unisex skirts of infancy to the garments of manhood. 

Some scholars believe the widespread wearing of codpieces can be traced to the syphilis epidemic that tore through Europe at a terrifying rate after the first outbreak in Naples in 1494. It is thought they provided cushioned shelters, stuffed with medicinal herbs, for sufferers’ tender tackle. Most historians agree, though, that codpieces were less about function than spectacle. For proof, one need only consider that a gentleman’s apparatus wasn’t the only part of the male anatomy to be helped along. By the 1570s, doublets were bulked out in the torso using horsehair, rags and even bran, forming the characteristically pointed peasecod belly seen in so many Renaissance paintings. Hose, as the billowy short trousers worn over stockings were called, could also be stuffed to spherical proportions. In his 1548 portrait by Jakob Seisenegger, the Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol wears a brocade codpiece that matches the panes of his slashed hose. Later, in Northern Europe, a trend for even more billowy slashed bottoms called pluderhosen developed, of which three spectacular examples survive in Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden. Once belonging to Erik, Svante and Nils Sture, these pluderhosen from 1567 are each accompanied by a rosette-shaped codpiece adorning the rise like a jaunty bow tie.  

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IN HIS CIRCA 1531 PORTRAIT BY BRONZINO, THE DUKE OF URBINO FLAUNTS A CODPIECE
BROCADED IN GOLD THREAD. © BRIDGEMAN IMAGES  

If the Montagues and Capulets were anything to go by, on the streets of Renaissance Europe a deadly skirmish could break out at the slightest provocation, prompting men to routinely sling swords or daggers from their belts for protection. With all that steel jangling at the waist, codpieces provided a layer to keep vulnerable areas from being struck. Just think about it: should you have fallen afoul of a blade-wielding opponent, you too would gladly have welcomed the padding of a bran-stuffed doublet and codpiece. Yet if these protective layers allowed you to survive the scuffle, no codpiece, however ornate, would have compensated for the humiliation of leaving a trail of grain behind, your ego as deflated as your outfit.

Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s.

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