French study takes aim at male crotch fashion

By Rory Mulholland, AFP

PARIS — Napoleon kept his privates well hidden, but had he lived in an earlier century he might have donned a brightly-colored codpiece, says a new book examining the evolution of male crotch fashion from the Renaissance to today’s zipped-up age. “Codpiece: A History of Clothing and Morals” looks at what may be one of the most neglected corners of fashion history — how male genitals started protruding from men’s garments in the 1500s and why they receded over the following centuries. French author Colette Gouvion uses paintings and photographs to illustrate the book that aims to tell how flies reveal the changing social mores of the West. Its front cover sports a photo of jazzman Chet Baker zipping up his jeans alongside a 1534 painting of a Spanish nobleman. That distinguished gentleman wears a dark jacket from which emerges a large codpiece that makes it seem he has an erection. Which may shock the modern viewer but which, Gouvion says, was a common sight at that time.

“It was an emblem of virility,” she told AFP, noting that before the Renaissance, European men had mostly worn long robes that covered the waist area. The protective metal codpieces of soldiers were noticed by non-fighting males who found them sexy and had civilian versions made that became more and more extravagant, to the horror of the religious orders.

“Sometimes they had little pockets in them that were used for holding handkerchiefs and other objects, sometimes even fruit which they would keep warm there before offering them to the ladies,” said Gouvion.

But by the end of the 16th century the sterner morals of both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation brought an end to such sexual exhibitionism. Over the next couple of centuries men’s genitals were discreetly covered but virility or power was often expressed by carrying a walking stick or wearing a top hat.

Codpieces gave way to flies: buttons or other fastenings, and later zips. In French the word “braguette” — the title of Gouvion’s book, which she says is the only one on the subject — means both codpiece and flies.

In the 1812 portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte that Gouvion reproduces, the French emperor, his right hand stuck inside his waistcoat, wears a pair of white trousers that are loose around the crotch. But the painter — and the subject —- have nevertheless sought to convey virility by making the contour of the left-hanging genitals slightly visible. Such practices, said Gouvion, were another sneaky way of expressing manhood. Nineteenth-century sartorial prudishness was pure hypocrisy, she said, as this was an era when sex was rarely talked about in public but it was also “the greatest era of prostitution, when brothels became social institutions.” It was only with the rapid rise in popularity of tight jeans in the 20th century that the male crotch regained a hint of the exuberance of the Renaissance. “You had an outcry from the right-thinking folks who denounced them as indecent… and you even had some people warning that they would prevent procreation by making men sterile,” said Gouvion.

But the modern era is still quite prudish, she notes, with certain rock stars, particularly heavy metal bands, members of the leather subculture and bullfighters the only ones left likely to wear real codpieces. “Today power is in the head, in intelligence, in money. You no longer have to show that you have a powerful member,” she said.