Modesty to Majesty: The Development of the Codpiece

Modesty to Majesty: The Development of the Codpiece
by Beth Marie Kosir
The following is a paper written by Ms. Kosir for a History of Costume class taken as part of her continuing studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. We are grateful to her for allowing its reproduction here, in the Fifteenth-Century Lifestyles section of the Richard III Society website.

Although in modern times fashion and style are determined by fashion houses and clothing designers, the same was not true during the Renaissance. During this period of re-birth of classical learning and advances in many areas, fashion was most often dictated by the nobility. With the exception of Elizabeth I, with her grand sense of uniqueness and style, the most unique style to come from the Renaissance was a man’s accessory, the codpiece. The codpiece came into existence during the Middle Ages, became popular during the reigns of the Yorkists monarchs in England, attained full prominence during the reign of Henry VIII, and disappeared during the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I. The question of why the codpiece developed, changed and evenutally disappeared can be answered fairly easily, if consideration is not given to the influence of the nobility in determining fashion and style.

That the development of the codpiece was a necessity is commonly agreed upon by fashion historians. However, there is some disagreement about when it first came into use. James Laver assigns the introduction of the codpiece to the Middle Ages section of his book, The Concise History of Costume and Fashion. “The main garment was still the doublet, but it could be worn extremely short, so short as to demand the use of a codpiece at times.”(1) Nevil Truman argues that the codpiece was a much later development. He credits the introduction of the fashion accessory to the Yorkist kings of England. “The years from 1461-1485-the brief reign of the Yorkist kings, Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III, were not years of great change in costume, though they will ever be remembered by reason of the startling codpiece.”(2) Whether Truman means that the Yorkist kings reigned when the codpeice was first used or when it became more noticeable is difficult to tell. Marion Sichel, in his book on men’s costume, suggests that the necessity of the codpiece was not the result of the gap left between the right and left halves of men’s hose, but because hose became so tight as to restrict movement. “This was the origin of thecodpiece which was a small bag with a flap at the fork of the hose, closed by ties. It was also known as the braguette (from the French) and was popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when it was rendered prominent with padding.”(3)

If legends have value, then Sichel and Laver are more accurate in their assessments. Legend has it that Edward III, king of England from 1327-1377, had the codpiece of his armor enlarged to astounding proportions because he had heard that strength and military prowess were correlated with a man’s endowment. As he was in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War with the French at the time, it would not be surprising that he would try to seek any possible advantage available to him. He then ordered that the nobility and knights do the same to their armor. The legend goes on to say that the gullible French (from the nobility all the way down to the peasantry) were scared to death by the advance of the “well-equipped” men. If this legend is true, and the personality of Edward III would support it, it is an example of how the nobility can influence fashion.

However, the influence of the nobility on fashion during the Renaissance was usually more subtle than the direct order given by Edward III. Assuming that the codpiece did actually come into existence earlier than the Renaissance, there must have been some impetus to bring about its greater prominence, if, as Truman suggests, the main fashion change from 1461-1485 was the “startling codpiece.” Fashion historians, it seems, are loathe to attribute any reason for the rising prominence of the codpiece, as most just acknowledge that there was a change. In his study of the history of hosiery, Grass acknowledges the change, but gives no reason. “[The] copiece…was a flap or a bag, attached to the front to conceal the opening in a man’s tights. This additional feature of male attire was at first necessary for sanitary reasons. But it soon developed into something else, a protuberance which particularly called attention to the male anatomy.”(4)

Since Truman fixes the codpiece to such a narrow time frame in England, consideration must be given to what was happening in England during that time period which might account for, not only the increasing prominence of the codpiece, but for the corresponding shortening of the doublet. During the majority of the first half of the fifteenth century, England was ruled by two pious monarchs, Henry V (referred to by Shakespeare as “the mirror of all Christian kings”) and his son, Henry VI, who was even more pious and who, some thought, under different circumstances, might have been destined for sainthood. Certainly, during this period it is highly unlikely that any more attention than was necessary would be called to the male anatomy. However, pious as Henry VI was, he was an incapable ruler and the result was the Wars of the Roses. In 1461, Henry VI lost his crown to Edward IV, purported to be the handsomest man in Europe. Edward’s younger brothers, George and Richard (in contrast to Shakespeare’s famous creation) were good-looking as well.

Well known for his amorous pursuit of the ladies, it is not surprising that the fashion of the times (still dominated at the time by England) led by a teen-aged Edward IV, would focus on his “gifts.” The Plantagenets were well known for their physical beauty and style, and that that style should compliment a young and handsome king is not surprising. Virility, or at least the projection of that image, was important to monarchs during the early Renaissance, both in portraying an aura of strength to enemies and in presenting an image to the people that the succession would not be a problem. That Edward IV wanted to present a virile and masculine image by wearing shorter doublets might very well be, but it is only part of the answer for the fashion change. Since most, if not all, of the portraits of Edward IV are from his later life, when over-indulgence had cost him his looks and his trim figure, it is impossible to know whether Edward IV subscribed to the new style of shorter doublets. His predecessor, Henry VI, only wore long somber-looking gowns (which were rarely washed) at the end of his life, and he did not start a new fashion trend.

What Edward IV did do, was to make England young and prosperous again. The people responded to the young and virile king on the throne. With prosperity once again returning to England, people had the time and money to be concerned about fashion. The Yorkist dynasty ended with the death of Richard III on Bosworth Field in 1485, resulting in Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, coming to the throne.

Not being as handsome as his Yorkist predecessors, Henry VII’s reign saw the lengthening of the skirt of the doublet and the temporary “cover-up” of the codpiece. Henry VII’s reign was relatively short, only twenty-four years, so the codpiece had not been entirely forgotten when his son, Henry VIII, came to the throne. During the time of Henry VIII, “[t]he main male garment was the doublet sometimes long enough to fall to the knee. It had an opening through which could be seen the codpiece.”(5) Now, however, the codpeice was not just a protector of a man’s modesty, it had becme an advertisement. In Let There Be Clothes, a rather irreverent view of fashion extremes, Lynn Schnurnberger sums up what happened to the codpiece quite well. “When doublets grew scandously short, the codpiece was introduced to protect a gentleman’s modesty by covering the opening between his hose. So far so good, but some wags started using codpeices as pockets and one thing led to another. By now [the reign of Henry VIII] they’re so heavily padded that they’re simply brazen eyecatchers.”(6) The expansion of the silhouette in men’s fashion during the reign of Henry VIII was not limited to exposing the codpeice to view once more. There was a literal expansion as well. “The silhouette presented was thus massive and thrusting, with a bulky torso carried upon legs that were freed for movement. The impact of this virility was emphasised by the use of the codpiece.” (7) Although Henry VIII was considered to be one of the handsomest men in Europe (no doubt through his grandfather, Edward IV), he was a large man later in his life and the new style suited him perfectly. The boxy silhouette can be explained by Henry’s desire to hide his excess bulk, but it doesn’t explain the expansion of the codpiece. “The codpiece was exaggerated in size, the bag was puffed and slashed, and even ornamented with jeweled pins.” (8) This new prominence, according to Boucher, was an effort by men to exaggerate their endowments.(9) If this is true, and it seems logical, why would a man who was nearing middle age choose to exaggerate his endowments when a young man, still in his teens, only sought to display them?

At least two explanations are possible; one is physical and the other psychological. Henry VIII, like many men of his time, was afflicted with syphilis, and according to a Cambridge, Massachusetts anthropologist, Grace W. Vicary, the exaggerated codpeices contained medication for the relief from the symptoms. They enclosed a specialized bandage and protected outer clothing from being stained by the medicine.(10) Considering the widespread occurrence of venereal diseases during the Renaissance, the greatly enlarged codpiece as a huge protective device is not too far-fetched. A second possible explanation for the growing proportions of the codpiece is particular to Henry VIII himself. Although Henry lived long before insight into genetics brought to light the knowledge that males determined the sex of unborn children, he was very likely concerned with the image he was presenting to the other rulers of Europe. So much did his inability to beget a healthy male heir (his son, later Edward VI, was always sickly) weigh on his mind, that Henry VIII changed the entire religion of England. He could then divorce his wife and try again with a new wife. Henry VIII understood succession problems, having only come to the throne because his older brother, Arthur, died young. Ever conscious of his image, the exaggerated codpiece told England, and the rest of Europe as well, that his equipment could not be at fault. His syphilis, however, likely affected his fertility. Henry VIII will always be known more for his six wives than for his codpiece (which often entered the room before he did), but such is the fickleness of fashion.

During the reign of Henry’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth I, fashion fickleness was perhaps at its height. Whereas Henry’s reign provided fashions that merely exaggerated what was normal, Elizabeth’s reign sparked fashions that had the most unnatural of silhouettes. With a woman on the throne, it would seem logical that the codpiece would fall from use, or disappear altogether. “The codpiece continued in fashion until about 1575, becoming smaller with less bombast from about the 1540’s. It was finally discarded at the end of the century, and was replaced by a vertical slit in front which was concealed in folds of material.”(11) Queen Elizabeth never married, and by 1575 it is likely that she had given up hope of conceiving children, even if she did choose to marry, as she was already well into her forties by that time. Being reminded of her obligation to provide an heir to the throne through such obvious flaunting of the male anatomy may have helped precipitate the demise of the codpiece.

While Elizabeth I had a great influence on women’s fashion during her reign, it was Henri III, king of France, who had an impact on men’s fashion. That Henri III was a homosexual may or may not have influenced his ruling of France, but it had a marked effect on men’s fashions. “With the disappearance of the codpiece, the overall costume showed a tendency towards the feminization inspired by Henri III, accentuated by the small muffs carried and the earrings worn.” (12) During a time when homosexuality was not only condemned by the Church, but punishable by imprisonment (or in some places, like England, death) it does not take a great leap of faith to imagine why the area of the male anatomy most associated with the “unnatural practice” would be de-emphasized.

With a woman on the English throne and a homosexual man on the French throne, it would not be surprising that the codpiece disappeared entirely. But, did it? Would men be so willing to yield up a fashion component that had been around for over two centuies, particularly one that showed them to their best advantage? “Whether the odd device was just sexual nonsense or the strange artifact of a venereal pandemic, it did not last past the 16th century. But no one knows whether codpieces fell out of general use or went underground, vanishing into the bloomers worn by the noblemen of Elizabeth’s England.”(13) Tracing the progress of the codpiece, which is, after all, only a minor fashion component, would seem to be a frivolous undertaking. But, as clothes, fashion and style represent societal attitudes as a whole, and nowhere more apparently than in sexual attitudes, i t is not superfluous at all. One look at a gown from the Victorian era speaks volumes about the repressed and restrictive societal values of the times with regard to sex. The late Middle Ages and early Renaissance was a time when mortality was high and maintaining the population was of prime concern. Any aid to procreation would seem to be beneficial, be it the turn of a well-formed leg in tight hose or a protruding codpiece. The population of Europe was able to be maintained and to grow, despite plagues, famines, and natural disasters. If the codpiece played even the smallest of roles in helping to achieve that worthy goal, it was indeed “necessary.”


Footnotes

  1. Laver, James. The Concise History of Costume and Fashion. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., n.d., p.68
  2. Truman, Nevil. Historic Costuming. London: Sir Issac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1952, p.39.
  3. Sichel, Marion. History of Men’s Costume. London: Batsford Academic and Educatonal, Ltd., 1984, p.17.
  4. Grass, Milton. History of Hosiery. New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc., 1956, p.98.
  5. Laver, p. 81.
  6. Schnurnberger, Lynn. 40,000 Years of Fashion: Let There Be Clothes. New York: Workman Publishing, 1981, p. 176.
  7. Williams, Penry. Life in Tudor England. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1964, p. 73.
  8. Grass, p. 98.
  9. Bouchier, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987, p. 228.
  10. All The Rage. ed. Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1992, pp. 74-5.
  11. Sichel, p. 25.
  12. Boucher, p. 240.
  13. All the Rage, p.75.

Bibliography

  • All The Rage. ed. Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1992.
  • Barton, Lucy. Historic Costume for the Stage. Boston: Walter H. Baker Company, 1961.
  • Boucher, François.20,000 Years of Fashion. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc. 1987.
  • Cunnington, C. Willet & Phillis Cunnington. Handbook of English Mediæval Costume. London: Faber and Faber, Limited, 1952.
  • Grass, Milton N. History of Hosiery. New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc., 1956.
  • Laver, James. The Concise History of Costume and Fashion. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., n.d.
  • Nunn, Joan. Fashion in Costume: 1200-1980. London: The Herbert Press, 1984.
  • Schnurnberger, Lynn. 40,000 Years of Fashion: Let There Be Clothes. New York: Workman Publishing, 1991.
  • Sichel, Marion. History of Men’s Costume. London: Batsford Academic and Educational, Ltd., 1984.
  • Tannehill, Reay. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.
  • Truman, Nevil. Historic Costuming. London: Sir Issac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1952.
  • Vecellio, Cesare. Vecellio’s Renaissance Costume Book. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.
  • Williams, Penry. Life in Tudor England. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1964.

About the Author

Ms. Kosir went back to college after a hiatus of nearly thirteen years, choosing sociology as her major, upon returning. One of her first classes was a Shakespeare course and the first play studied wasRichard III. She was immediately hooked on both Shakespeare and Richard III and a love for them and for medieval history was born. Although successful in her chosen field of study (winning the Nason Hall Award for outstanding sociology student and being elected president of the Sociology Honor Society), she realized after a semester of graduate study in sociology that history and English were her true calling.

She returned as an undergraduate to pursue a second degree with a history/English major, and a concentration in Renaissance literature. Ever the successful student, she was chosen for both the English Honor Society and the History Honor Society. Her paper entitled Richard III: A Study in Historiographical Controversy was nominated for the McGovern Award for research work, as well as published in two Richard III Society quarterlies and at the Society’s website. She also won the William Renzi Scholarship for outstanding achievement as a history major. During the 1996-7 academic year, she was chosen to take over the teaching of her Shakespeare professor’s lower level course during his three week absence, and the timing proved perfect. The play being studied was Richard III and the professor encouraged her to teach both the play and the real history behind it.