There has been some discussion and controversy surrounding the forthcoming film of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, centred on the size of the actor’s codpieces. It is alleged that they have been made smaller than would be historically accurate in order to avoid upsetting American audiences, who may be uncomfortable with such blatantly virile fashion items.
The codpiece is just that: a fashion item, and like all fashions it began in a small and insignificant way and gradually grew.
In the 15th century men wore hose (a garment like a pair of tights but made from stretchy woollen cloth) and a triangular-shaped flap covered the front opening. Towards the end of the 15th century this flap started to be padded and gradually became a more prominent feature.
The codpiece reached its maximum size in the 1530s, the period in which Wolf Hall is set. Then, as fashions in men’s clothing changed it gradually shrank, disappearing completely by the end of that century.
So what was the reason for this strange fashion? Clothing trends reflect social conditions, and the Tudor period was a time of war, change and insecurity. In response to this, men adopted a style of clothing that emphasised their manliness and virility to mask their inner insecurity.
It is probably no coincidence that the simple codflap began its transformation into the codpiece in Germany, the home of the Reformation. It is difficult for us today to comprehend the shattering effect this schism in the church must have had on the people who lived through it, whose solid world appeared to be breaking apart.
For men, especially young men, the look of this period is very powerful and macho; not just the codpiece, but also broad, heavily padded shoulders and tight hose to display a manly calf. Such a look could easily be a reaction to this insecurity. The wearers are saying the world may be falling apart but they are still real men.
The early 16th century was also a period of war, and in such eras there is a constant interchange between civilian and military fashions. German mercenaries (the Landsknechts) who were employed by Henry VIII and other European monarchs popularised German military fashion, including the codpiece, all over northern Europe. The codpiece even found its way into the high-class armours of the period, but its function was purely decorative.
How big was the codpiece? For most ordinary men it was fairly moderate; surviving examples in plain wool have been found in excavations of London, and they are not overly prominent and are unlikely to have shown under the knee length woollen coat that middle-class men wore. However, for the wealthy and powerful, in this extremely status-conscious society – and especially for courtiers for whom advancement depended on being noticed – extravagant clothing was a necessity. Their padded shoulders needed to be broader, their hose tighter and codpieces larger than those of their competitors. But size isn’t everything, and the quality of the fabrics counted for a great deal too, and this is where the king could set himself above his court by using extravagant fabric and expensive decorations. So Henry VIII may not have had the biggest codpiece at his court – but you can be certain he had the most expensive one.