The Codpiece and Other Conversational Bits

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I am guessing that most of you reading Morris House: Backstage are students – which is why in the past I’ve generally refrained from typing up an entry—until today. You hear me prattle away all too often in classes, so do I really need to inflict further punishment on you in the form of a blog?

Yes, I do. Yes. Today, I really need to break with convention, if only to let you in on the interesting kind of discussions I sometimes have with authors after their readings on campus. Michèle Plomer and Anne Fortier, who spoke at Morris House Reading Series this past week, are two of the more lovely and engaging writers who have visited us. As the discussion over supper proved, they are also dynamic conversationalists.

And it all started with the codpiece.

Wait – let me back up a little. It actually started when I broached a conversation related to feminism (no big surprise there for any student who has suffered through a class with me. That’s a little like acknowledging the sky is blue). We were at The Lion’s Pub. Yes, that’s right: we transitioned from feminism to codpieces over canned pop and other forms of nourishment as only one can find at The Lion’s Pub. And yes, we did not order beer. So we can’t displace responsibility for the conversation that ensued by gesturing towards the effects of alcohol.

Upon my broaching the topic about feminism, Plomer remarked upon the fact that, whatever contemporary challenges inherent in being a woman in North American society, the best era for women is unquestionably our own. Women have never had it better (even if we could still have it better). Fortier had stepped away from the table briefly and returned at this moment. In that engaging style she has, she observed that fashion for women was once so constrained and uncomfortable:  tight corsets and layers upon layers of clothing that rendered it difficult to move with any sense of ease. Whatever one may think about high heels (I love them! Did I say that out loud?) and other fashion currents, she added, we’ve come a long way, baby.

I agreed, but I mulled it over before adding playfully that I thought more men might consider wearing high heels. After all, it makes for a very handsome leg. And, once upon a time in eighteenth-century Britain, didn’t men once wear high heels? Powdered wigs? A little rouge? Très chic. What a disappointment that they’re restricted in their fashion options now.

This was the moment that Fortier’s research for her novel, Juliet, surfaced in the most fascinating way: codpieces. She explained (if I remember correctly) that English men of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had to wear codpieces, since their stockings stopped short of their genitals and their jackets or doublets became shorter and shorter—kind of like the 1960s mini-skirt. Handsome legs indeed.

If, however, a 1960s woman actually wore undergarments below her mini-skirt, our Renaissance man did not wear anything below his doublet. There was therefore an increased risk of—how shall I put this?—an increased risk of flashing his private parts. The real equivalent in the 1960s, then, would be a woman’s cleavage, with similar risks if she had burned her bra in protest marches.

And this brings me to the codpiece—the device invented to cover a man’s genitals as the doublet became … far more cost-effective in terms of the quantity of fabric used. Fortier pointed out that their costume was quite practical: they could relieve themselves without going to great lengths to undress. Still, they needed something to protect their anterior parts as they also rode horses and engaged in other martial activity.

And so the codpiece was born. But, after its birth, it became increasingly ornate and, quelle surprise, took on greater and greater dimensions to suggest, of course, the greatness of the dimensions of the very body part it was protecting.

Fortier and Plomber were, by the way, just as engaging during their presentation on Wednesday afternoon. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be posting the video of their talk. You won’t be disappointed by what they had to say—even if they didn’t talk about codpieces.

– Linda Morra

One thought on “The Codpiece and Other Conversational Bits

  1. I never expected to find a history of the codpiece on the MHRS blog, but then again, I remember how fascinating, humourous, and meandering those post-reading conversations could be.

    I’ve always thought it interesting that women can adopt “masculine” fashions without reproach, but put a man in high heels and he’s sure to garner some hostile looks. I do think that fashion today does provide women with more options than it does men. I would argue that much of what is currently fashionable for women actually does not align with how the patriarchy would have women garbed. Men, however, are always expected to look “masculine.”

    This is not to say that the fashion industry does not limit and subtly oppress women in certain ways. One of Kate Moss’ most famous quotations, after all, is “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” As a cupcake-lover, my response to this is “……………”

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