Fashion has embraced the codpiece again, centuries after it fell out of style.
Gucci’s Alessandro Michele revived the accessory for his spring/summer 2019 show: rendered in leather and snakeskin, worn harness-like and evoking Robert Mapplethorpe; in shiny diamante, hanging like a glitter ball; and framed like a seashell clutching the symbolic pearl.
The American designer Thom Browne also featured them in his spring/summer 2020 show, which nodded to deconstructed sportswear. His models wore them over pleated tutus and bell-shaped suit-dresses, accessorised with papier-mache-looking football helmets, broken umbrellas and headbands in the red, white and blue of the US flag.
Browne used the item as a focal point for his show, which revolved around sexual identity. “The codpiece is a whimsical representation of masculinity,” he said. And at the height of its popularity in the 1540s, the item indicated machismo to its Renaissance audience.
Victoria Bartels, the author of What Goes Up Must Come Down: A Brief History of the Codpiece, said: “The interesting thing about 16th-century male fashion is the way in which it reveals what was important to men at this time: their preoccupation with masculinity, military prowess and virility.”
And it was about signalling power to other men, rather than being a symbol of fecundity. Henry VIII wore it in several portraits, including Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portrait of Henry VIII, c 1536-1537.
Michael Glover wrote in his book Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art: “[The painting] perfectly focuses our attention on the principle object of interest: Henry’s codpiece.” Glover argued Henry’s codpiece was weaponised, creating the feeling of “codpiece envy” in his enemies and subjects.
“I think that they were intended to induce awe,” he said. The book also talks about the fraudulence of the codpiece as an item that promised more than it delivered and contributing to a fabricated, fictionalised version of the male body.
“It encouraged concentration on the organ of generation, as if to prove at a stroke or a single overwhelming thrust, and beyond doubt, that man was a mighty and unstoppable factory and machine,” he wrote.
This idea of signalling masculine power in the absence of real substance is something that has been used by modernist practitioners of the codpiece, from Blackadder to Darth Vader and Michael Jackson, whose dance moves focused on his crotch even when he was not wearing his golden codpiece.
“He was a particularly sad case of self-reconstruction,” Glover said about Jackson. “Every bit of him, from nose to skin to groin, had to be made brightly anew for fandom’s sake.”
Shakespeare also picked up on the codpiece. He referenced its dual properties of deception and braggadocio in King Lear and Measure for Measure. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Lucetta makes a male costume as a disguise for Julia and says: “You must needs have them with a codpiece, madam … A round hose, madam, now’s not worth a pin unless you have a codpiece to stick pins on.”
Glover said: “Shakespeare was the great, instinctive etymologist. He knew how words tricked with their double and triple meanings: ‘cod’ as scrotum, ‘to cod’ meaning to cheat.”
The current revival in menswear for this 16th-century piece follows the womenswear trend for “Renaissancecore”. The era has been mined by designers from Alexander McQueen to Vivienne Westwood and Simone Rocha. Explaining fashion’s obsession with the era, the designer Gareth Pugh said: “The Tudors were the first power dressers.”
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