Gucci’s Alessandro Michele breathed new life into the codpiece for his SS19 show, using leather and snakeskin, with faint echoes of BDSM, and a diamanté version whose sparkling ball evoked the long-gone days of disco. Among the fresh SS20 lines that tumbled like mountain streams from fashion’s rarefied heights, Thom Browne sent out the boys in girly hoops and studly cups, sowing – or perhaps sewing – alarm and confusion among the fashionistas.
Browne is merely engaging in his usual light bitch slapping of the bourgeoisie, and certainly doesn’t see the codpiece as part of any particular trend or expression of male dominance, as he explained to the author Michael Glover in a recent startling podcast. Glover has written an amusing book about this eccentric piece of male peacockery – Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art. Talking later about its original 16th-century appearance, Glover described the codpiece as suggesting how “the penis, and everything that clusters about it, is enormous in proportion, and is tremendously potent. And that the owner […] is extremely virile… ” Blimey! And here I assumed that most blokes felt that way without having to strap on a cumbersome cup.
That self-seriousness has only added to the comedic potential seized on by Browne in his recent reimagining of the codpiece. He used it as a focal point for his show, which revolved around sexual identity. “The codpiece,” he says, “is a whimsical
representation of masculinity.” He does not connect his with any of the sexual braggadocio the item was invested with back in the day, when it was seen as a potent symbol of virility and all the other aggressive hetero qualities that are turning our planet into an uninhabitable shithole as we speak. And of course it signalled to other men that size matters: “My package is bigger than yours.”
What the elite see on the runway never makes it to the high street, which is why the mischievous Browne has so much fun sending out his models, delicate ephebes for the most part, in hoop-skirt frames bedecked with rosettes and codpieces strapped over their culottes. They look so cute and indeed may well be reflecting the current state of (especially American) sex, with its bizarre mixture of puritanism and kink. These kids have already seen too much too soon, and so their personal fetishes become increasingly abstract, obscure, often lacking a physical dimension, communicated mostly by text and app.
That said, the Browne boys in the neighbourhood, discreetly observed as they swan along Hudson Street near his flagship Tribeca store, sockless in their floodwater pants and bumfreezer jackets, and that patriotic strip of red and white down their shirts and on their cardigans, do certainly brighten up the street as they mingle with the dour shades of humanely plucked down-and polyester-filled coats that keep most of New York’s populace warm in winter.
The codpiece brings to mind my favourite Robert Mapplethorpe photo, Man in a Polyester Suit, which depicts a male member of such size and weight that surely no cup could contain it. For me it is a Proustian madeleine of the seedy sexy Seventies, when every schlong seemed long, revealed in the way trousers were tailored, with nowhere for the tackle to go but down the leg, often accompanied by a sock. The man in the polyester suit has sprung his wang from its detention, revealing an explosive object that incites in so many (mostly white) men a vague discomfort, though it might seem less terrifying than admirable to those whose own equipment is of sufficient amplitude, a pleasing measure and confirmation of their own pleasure principle. The man in polyester’s cup indeed would runneth over were he to constrain it with a modern codpiece. I read somewhere that ace photographer Juergen Teller had acquired a print of this particular Mapplethorpe, at a very reasonable price, surprisingly (a recent original print was auctioned off at Sotheby’s for $478,000). Having seen numerous Teller nude self-portraits, I can see the attraction, and the similarity, between his wiener and the larger version photographed by Mapplethorpe.
These current codpieces don’t really suggest “sexy” so much as defensive nonsexual aggression – don’t touch my package, alluring as it might seem in its leathery jewel box. Indeed, the host of confusing new signals emitted by #MeToo© alerts has made the whole boy-meets-girl intercourse so much more complex, according to the youngsters I frequently interrogate in a desperate effort to throw Freud overboard and stay Jung at heart.
If the codpiece is back, can the merkin be far behind? Does all this focus on the nether regions mean that certain stylish women will soon be flaunting a merkin? As one who came of age when the female pubic region often resembled the fecund undergrowth that flourished along Nottinghamshire’s country lanes, all brambly and curlicued, a blooming thicket concealing a mysterious aperture, which in turn contained various knobs and levers complex as algebra to an eager boy, you might surmise I am no fan of the merkin. A fake version of the “mound of Venus”, as we called it then, having facetiously adopted the euphemisms found in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Nowadays, female actors compelled to show full frontal, on stage and in films, especially period (sic) pieces, are usually required to sport a merkin, since a thousand Brazilian waxings have erased forever the original pubes. In case you, gentle reader, ever have need of one of your own, here follow the instructions, laid out by a highly skilled stylist, on how to attach this vadge wig to your body: “Position it just above the pubic mound, where the majority of your pubic hair would be. If you need to make any adjustments, do so now. Smooth the merkin down onto your skin, and hold it in place until the spirit gum sets […] Simply hold the merkin in place until it stays still.” Until it “stays still”, they advise, as if the pubic wig were some furry little beast liable to scurry off into the woods if some mouthbreather came close. As if.
This sudden onset of codpiece worship reminds me of simpler times, green summer lawns, cricket whites with a vivid grass stain at the knee, tea in the pavilion at 4 o’clock, and snug beneath the flannels that comforting strap-on leather cup, its surface worn smooth by years of boys’ fleshy equipment, yearning to be free. Those flannels are long gone, along with the caps and cable-knit sweaters that made a young Ralph Lauren weak at the knees. Nowadays the cricketers wear crash helmets
when they go to bat, and their once-pristine kit is covered with more badges and insignia than Amy Winehouse had tattoos. The droogs in that seminal Stanley Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange (1971), wore their cricket boxes with great style, a necessary part of their body armour since they seemed to be involved on a daily basis in dishing out the old ultra-violence. The protectors looked very stylish worn over the white jumpsuits, along with the heavy eye make-up the delinquents favoured. (In my mind there is a scene from the film I may have imagined: Alex’s put-upon mum at the kitchen sink every night, washing bloodstains out from his maculate white onesie.)
Male vanity in the 1970s expressed itself with trousers cut so tight around the crotch that even the veins of the membrum virile could be seen in outline, thanks to the elasticating powers of polyester. But the Navy’s tailors had been in on this secret for years. Those sailor trousers from that decade, with the button-front flap, $6 a pair at Church Street Surplus in 3ft-high stacks of freshly laundered heavyweight cotton. All the nice girls loved a sailor back then. I remember wandering by the old rotting piers down by the Hudson around Canal, then known as Bacchanal Street, just looking of course, and public fellatio seemed to be the height of fashion. There are vivid examples of this brief localised merging and flowering of gay art and sex in the pier-based photographs of Alvin Baltrop (deceased) and Stanley Stellar (alive and well), inter alia. Stellar has one particular shot of a naked young man (porn star JD Slater) at an abandoned pier, nice detail of a Keith Haring graffiti on the wall next to him, and in the background a kneeling man busy fellating another feller. It sums up the casual, random quality of sex back then, the old “Fancy a shag?” attitude. The man standing in the background while a stranger plays his skin flute is recognisable as the late great Peter Hujar, himself a connoisseur of gay sex, life and art before the plague carried him off a few short years after this photo was taken.
Size matters in America. These massive trucks, the Toyota Testosterone, the Ford Forcible and all the other doublewide gas guzzlers that abound in Trump’s America, carry a barely subliminal message, much like the images of assault weapons certain rabid Second Amenders and militiamen so lovingly caress on their crusty Facebook pages. Me, I drive a Mini, but you know what “they” say – big gun small dick, big truck same thing… The law of averages says that can’t be true, but mostly the brandishing of these massive symbols of power and destruction carry an undercurrent of inferiority the same way the codpiece boastfully implies a vast and vigorous organ, when in fact there may be a tiny toy inside that toolbox.
by Max Blagg
Illustration by David Lock. Taken from Issue 15 of 10 Men – GENTLE, SENSUAL, FANTASY – is out TODAY.