Me and my codpiece


What we wear has changed vastly through the ages - with certain styles and garments resurfacing from time to time in what seems like a cycle. But will medieval attire ever make a comeback?

In the world of fashion, no classic piece ever quite disappears, and I'm looking forward to the imminent return of the plus-four and the spat.

But I might be in for a long wait to see a new lease of life for another old favourite, the codpiece.

This honest pouch or flap, richly embroidered and plushly upholstered, doesn't really fit the lifestyle choices of today's man, with his skinny jeans and clinging gym-togs in unforgiving Lycra.

The decline of the box or cup would baffle and confound the towering figures of 16th Century Italy, who helped to shape our modern world.

If the Renaissance was about anything, it was about a fellow having the confidence to stand up and sport a pair of well-filled hose.

Yes, there was some magnificent art, too, of which more later. But this was the moment of man's first inklings about science, when the tailor's shears of reason met the smothering bolts of superstition and blind faith.

What better way to greet this glorious but uncertain dawn than by wearing the piece of cod which passes all understanding.

For myself, the revival of this moribund accessory can't come soon enough.

I only know that everything they tell you is true - you never forget the first time you wear a codpiece.

I was in the Palazzo Vecchio in the heart of old Florence, the former court of Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany - banker, absolute ruler, patron of the arts.

He commissioned the sculptor Cellini and the painter Bronzino.

He tried to woo Michelangelo himself from Rome back to his native Florence.

The great man refused, but after he was dead, Cosimo sent body snatchers to finish the job.

When Cosimo was in power, from 1537, fashion was governed by strict sumptuary laws, which rationed expensive fabrics and dyes, and enforced on society a strict pecking order - if you'll overlook the expression.

There was greater mobility between city and countryside, and this was reflected in breezier tailoring.

Image copyright OED
Image caption The term was first documented in 1500

Out went cumbersome long tunics - and in came shorter doublets, or so said fashion historian Roberta Orsi Landini.

I was immersing myself in the life of Cosimo's court and Roberta was helping me to throw together an understated Florentine ensemble: a white chemise with proud ruff, tights, a jerkin in the blues and greys of office life - this was the corporate lounge suit of its day.

"Men's clothes also followed military uniforms," said Roberta.

"They wore… intimate armour."

Wordlessly, she withdrew from my side, and I understood that I must complete my dressing alone, securing the piece de resistance with a last few ticklish threading of laces through eyeholes.

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Media captionThe BBC's Stephen Smith tries on a chic black codpiece

After it was done, Roberta said: "It gives the impression of a man of strength, a winner, so it was a shape that suggested virility."

"Back in the Renaissance, was the codpiece anatomically correct?" I asked.

"Of course not. It was a fake," she said.

"They wanted to appear bigger than they were, of course, but it wasn't made for women, but to show to other men."

Ah, the folly of my brothers down the ages.

I asked Roberta: "As a lady, do you regret the passing of the codpiece?"

"Oh no no, of course not," she laughed.

"'But don't you think there's a certain... comedy to it, perhaps?"

"I don't think so," she said. "I think normal pockets are better."

Yes, pockets.

The garment was practical, in its way, a forerunner of the bumbag, for better or worse.

It was a place to keep your keys, or perhaps a handful of florins (that's loose change, to you and me).

You mustn't blame the codpiece for the vanity of its smirking incumbent.

Grand Duke Cosimo was seen in one at all civic functions, as were his guard of German mercenaries, the Lanzichenecchi.

As the sun beat down on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, outside the Uffizi, the bodyguards would vie with one another to see who could cast the most shark-like shadow.

Until one day when a sentry upset the womenfolk, with what a chronicler of the time called "a very long and lewd codpiece of a barbarous and very impolite shape".

In what's thought to be one of the earliest documented examples of frisking, it emerged that what was behind this outrageous fashion statement was nothing more than a rolled-up hanky.

Somehow, it seems fitting to me to end an appraisal on the codpiece with an anti-climax.

I guess I'm just a cup-half-full kind of guy.

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Stephen Smith presents How to Get Ahead at Court on BBC Four on Wednesday 19 March 2014 at 21:00 GMT.

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