. Royally robed, sceptre in hand, the likeness befitted Henry’s reputation for extravagance, right down to its lascivious secret mechanism: “If you press a spot on the floor with your feet,” one observer wrote, “you will see something surprising with regard to this figure, but I will not say more.” I will: it was the king’s codpiece, sallying forth in full regalia.
Henry VIII remains the poster boy for codpieces, those profane protuberances that drew eyes crotchward in the sixteenth century. A suit of the king’s armor, boasting a bulbous codpiece weighing more than two and a half pounds, is still on display at the Tower; women used to stick pins in its sumptuous red-velvet lining to ward off barrenness. And who could blame them? Sure, Henry sired notoriously few healthy children, but, in a famous portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, he exudes the lusty mystery of a wellborn stud, his codpiece swollen with the stuff of life. He and his appendage feature prominently in “Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art,” by the English critic Michael Glover. “Has heaven ever before conjured so broad a pair of shoulders?” Glover writes, of Henry’s portrait. “Do you know of any other monarch who is as wide as he is long?”
Good questions, both, but any study of the codpiece begins with simpler ones: Why did it exist at all, and why did men elect to wear it? Theories abound. The historian Grace Vicary has argued that codpieces were, in a sense, the P.P.E. of their day, born as a means of containing a disease—in this case syphilis, which was then sweeping through Europe. Treating the French pox, as it was known, called for “a whole galaxy of herbs, minerals, syrups, and decoctions,” Vicary writes, applied directly in “a variety of messy unguents and poultices.” If you wanted to protect your fancy wardrobe from stains, the reasoning goes, you would do well to isolate the whole package in an oversized box. Plus, Renaissance men carried a lot of junk on their belts—this was the era that gave us the “swashbuckler,” after all—and a bit of padding around the crotch would help insulate them “from bumps and friction.”
With time, codpieces transcended their functional origins, much as the surgical mask has yielded to the cloth Baby Yoda one. For the men of the fifteenth century, conditions for phallic peacocking were optimal: theirs was an age without pants, when only snug stockings and long gowns hid their “privy Members and Buttockes.” By 1450, doublets had become immodestly short. The codpiece, in its early form, was a baggy cloth gusset laced to the stockings, but, in the course of the next century, rising on a tide of ostentation, it bulged and distended. In Italy and Spain, and soon across Europe, padding and stays came into vogue. A kind of circumferential arms race led to boxy, generously portioned tubes that simpered from the waistlines of princes and peons alike.
Thus the codpiece, designed for discretion, became instead a rigid contrivance. Historians have compared it to “a permanent erection,” noting that it was “so voluminous it could serve as a pocket.” And indeed it did, offering convenient storage for one’s hankie or a stray orange, in addition to “ballads, bottles, napkins, pistols, hair, and even a looking glass,” as the scholar Will Fisher has written. With great size comes great decorative responsibility, and men of means rose to the occasion. They brocaded, damasked, bejewelled, embroidered, tasseled, tinseled, and otherwise ornamented their codpieces until they became like walking Christmas trees. Puberty was no prerequisite: boys as young as seven could engorge themselves with silk and satin. On the battlefield, a codpiece signalled martial swagger; in the royal court, procreative swagger; and, everywhere else, swagger at large
And yet none of this presses on the question of motive. Glover looks for clues in the litany of codpieces jutting from Renaissance paintings, leading a perceptive tour of the nether regions. If nothing else, he’s an inspired describer of groins in their finery. Of Alonso Sánchez Coello’s “Portrait of Alessandro Farnese,” he notices that the young noble’s codpiece mimics “the puffing out of his breeches, which sag from his elegant pinched-in waist like two gently slumping puddings.” Surveying Titian’s “Emperor Charles V with a Dog,” Glover probes the hound’s “questing muzzle,” which veers “sniffing-close” to its master’s codpiece in what can only be “an allusion to the emperor’s virility.” And in Luca Signorelli’s unruly fresco “The End of the World,” Glover sees, amid the “writhing, gesticulating soldiers,” “overripe fruit hanging from the bough of the groin, poised and displayed for quick picking.”
Too often, though, Glover reaches for that overripe fruit, as when he writes, “It seems you just can’t keep a good codpiece down.” When he exclaims that “only a mere letter” separates the French word for codpiece, braguette, from baguette—“that faux cod-phallus, crispy and hard on the surface yet so yielding at its center”—he seems guilty of the same “self-puffery” he mocks. “It was as normal to wear a codpiece,” he writes, “as it is to wear, say, a padded bra in our own day. And yet, and yet, we still wonder about it.” True, but throughout “Thrust,” Glover treats the codpiece more as an object of ridicule than of curiosity. The epitome of embellished manhood, it contributed, he writes, “to a fabricated, fictionalized version of the male body.” Be that as it may, a generation of men lived and died in these things—owned them, stored them, sat pridefully for portraits in them. Even if the phenomenon was solely a crisis of machismo, isn’t there more to learn about it from the art history at the heart of his study?
Fisher has proposed that the codpiece embodies duelling visions of masculinity. Before the Renaissance, a man’s identity was predicated on his ability to have children, ideally lots of them. The codpiece had one stockinged foot in that world—“cod” was slang for the scrotum, not the penis—and the other in a racy alternative that valued “sexual conquest” more than reproduction. Seen in this light, codpiece-wearing men were essentially performing their performance anxiety; Marjorie Garber has called the codpiece “the thinking man’s (or woman’s) bauble, the ultimate detachable part.”
Whatever the case, by the close of the sixteenth century, the codpiece had become a canker-blossom on the male form, and it declined as suddenly as it had ascended. As early as the fifteen-eighties, Michel de Montaigne had written off the accessory as “empty and useless,” puzzling, “What was the meaning of that ridiculous part of the breeches worn by our fathers?” Fashion took a decidedly feminine direction; soon ruffs adorned necks and upperstocks plumped from midriffs. Some mourned the senescence of tumescence. Barton Holyday longed for the days of “that Cod-piece-ago, when the innocency of men did not blush to shew all that Nature gaue them.” (He seems to have elided the fact that codpieces were mostly empty space.) Since their peak, they’ve popped up only in passing. In the nineteen-sixties, Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the Black Panther Party, used the profits from his prison memoir to design a pair of pants with a large, “sock-like codpiece” built in. “We’ve been castrated in clothing,” Cleaver told the press, “and my pants open up new vistas. I’m against penis binding.” He’s not alone: in the past year, codpieces have appeared on the runway from Thom Browne and Gucci, the latter available in leather.
If a revival is coming—if our thirst for personal protective equipment cannot be slaked with masks, gloves, and shields alone—we would do well to learn from our forebears. To my eye, the finest painting featured in “Thrust” is Brueghel the Elder’s “The Wedding Dance,” from 1566, in which a jumble of tipsy peasants make merry at a homespun reception. Foregrounded, of course, are what Glover aptly calls “no-holds-barred codpieces,” worn by commoners “thoroughly unashamed of themselves . . . exulting in the sheer beastliness of men.” He’s right: the codpiece has never looked more natural. Even if Brueghel intended to warn against bawdiness, he captured the fashion as a way of life rather than as a flagrant absurdity. These men are being, not seeming. Did any of them ever glimpse his crotch and worry, even for a fraction of a second, that he looked ridiculous? Did he fear that history would judge him harshly? As he ran the last lace through its eyelet, did he think anything at all? These and other facts are forever hidden from us, tucked away in the proud codpiece of the past.