The Rise of the Codpiece: How STDs Led to a Fashion Disaster

Here's how the codpiece—an ornamental junk protector—became the most desirable accessory of 15th century Europe.


As any man who’s ever been through puberty can tell you, there are few things more embarrassing than a wayward, unexpected erection. More than a few teenage boys have chosen to ride the bus a few extra stops rather than stand up in front of everyone with a fully pitched tent, but for a brief time in history, this sort of display was the height of fashion. Not with a real stiffy, of course—that would have been unseemly. Instead, this presenting of the parts was left to the more suggestive and overly ornate codpiece.

This quirk of fashion first reared its head, so to speak, in 15th Century Europe. Male fashion was reaching heights of elaborate complexity at this time, and the typical pair of pants consisted of two stocking-like coverings, worn over simple linen underwear. With little to cover or protect the family jewels, a small triangular patch was added over the “cod”—an Olde English word for scrotum—preserving both modesty and genetic material.

As is so often the case, male insecurity was responsible for the silliness of what came next. Unhappy with what this simple patch said about the size and virility of their manhoods, dudes began to expand them, gradually padding them out until they resembled, to all intents and purposes, exactly the objects they were supposedly there to conceal. By the 1540s, the craze was at its peak, with codpieces showing up in velvet, bejeweled and festooned with bows—a phallic nightmare of a My Little Pony gone horribly wrong.

Some even came in plate armor. Since many suits of armor of the time were created more for ceremonial purposes than for battle-ready practicality, they tended to ape the day’s fashions. The end result? Heavy metal codpieces, such as this delightfully chunky one sported by King Henry VIII, or this even more tumescent example on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, it wasn’t all male ego that caused this upsurge in popularity for padded pants: You can also blame a 16th Century outbreak of syphilis. Just as it boosted the fashion for wigs by causing people to lose their hair, it encouraged the development of larger, roomier codpieces, since bigger codpieces meant more room for bandages or other dressings on the genitals themselves. Who says that high fashion can’t reflect real world issues?