During the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, the most common everyday clothing for men was a kind of short jacket or overshirt called a doublet worn with thick woolen, linen, or silk hose. The hosiery of the time consisted of two separate stockings that covered the legs but left an opening at the top that exposed the wearer's genitals. To preserve modesty and protect the genitals, medieval tailors invented the codpiece around the mid-1400s. The codpiece, called a braguette in French, was a flap or pouch of fabric sewn at the top of a man's hose to hide his genitals from view.
While the codpiece was originally created to provide modesty, it evolved into a fashion statement. By the early 1500s, the codpiece had grown larger and more decorative and had become a way to advertise one's masculinity, by exaggerating the size of his genitals. Though doublets became long enough to cover the genitals, most had a special opening in the front for the codpiece to stick through in a visible way. Some codpieces were even designed to curve upward to resemble an erect penis. Fashionable men, led by England's King Henry VIII (1491–1547), padded their codpieces to enormous sizes and decorated them with jewels. Some even used them as a sort of pocket, hiding small weapons or valuables there.
Priests and other clergy were horrified by the new style and spoke out against it. The codpiece did indeed get smaller by the mid-1500s, possibly because Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was the new ruler of England and did not appreciate this example of male vanity. By 1575 the codpiece had disappeared, replaced by short padded breeches, or pants, which provided coverage.
All the Rage. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Sichel, Marion. History of Men's Costume. London, England: Batsford, 1984.