Do You Like It? Share It:

Men’s Underwear up to 1600


Ssproles & Burns (1994) refer to dress as the presentation of the human body, and as such “it inevitably generates some sexual implications” (p. 196). The authors quote Flugel, one of the first fashion theorists in the 1930’s to use psychoanalytic theory to explain the sexual symbolism of clothing. Flugel observed that, “clothes not only serve to arouse sexual interest but may themselves actually symbolize the sexual organs” (in Sproles & Burns, p. 196).

As far back as 5400 BC, there are artifacts that shown men wearing a type of cache-sexes or sex-organ cover. Over the centuries, sex-organ covers have been used primarily to protect men’s organs. However, early cache-sexes left a portion of men’s attributes exposed. Depending on the social and cultural context of the period, the display of male sexual organs generally conveyed a meaning of their virility. The spread of religions across the Middle East and Europe brought about judgmental changes of what constitutes morality, modesty, and sexual exhibition. Therefore, the variations in the design of men’s underwear across time have been affected by the  dictates of social mores, and the influence of fashion changes in men’s costumes.

This article is divided in two parts. Part I examines the most popular types of men’s underwear prior to the 1600s such as the loincloth, braies, and codpieces. Part II describes the fashionable undergarments worn by men from 1600 to 2000, for instance, drawers, combinations, men’s shorts and briefs, and in the mid-1970s, the resurgence of the codpiece as a novelty accessory.



There are early cave paintings and figurines showing males clad in loincloths. In 1961, while digging in a mound situated in the province of Anatolia, in Turkey, a team of British archeologists, led by James Mellaart, discovered a great wall painting in a shrine dating back to 5400 BC. A man in the painting is dressed in a white loincloth (Reader’s Digest, 1983, p. 6-7). Men clothed in loincloths are also depicted in Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Sumerian art and figurines dating back to 3500 BC (Hansen, 1956, p.  6; Harris & Johnston, 1971, p. 14, 21, 34; McKay & McKay, 2010). Boucher (1973) explains that in Eastern Mediterranean societies men commonly wore a kind of cache-sexe hung from the belt which looked like a short skirt, a double apron, or short trousers (p. 80, 118, 131).



The literature suggests that prior to medieval times the groin area was left relatively uncovered under men’s tunics or doublets. In early medieval times (1066-1300), wealthy men wore next to their skin a loose shirt or tunic of silk, and the common man wore a tunic made of linen or wool. Underneath their shirt or tunic they clothed their legs in braies or breeches. Braies were a loose fitting drawer-like garment which was attached at the waist with a drawstring and varied in length from upper-thigh to below the knee (Cunnington 1964, p. 10; Ruby, 1996, p. 8).

CODPIECES, 1300 – 1600 


The invention of men’s hosiery in the 1300s resulted in the raising of hemlines on men’s doublets and jackets to mid-thigh to make their legs look longer. The early hoses had separate legs leaving men’s genitals exposed when sitting and when mounting a horse. The guardians of public morals criticized the immodesty of displaying male organs. In the late 1300s and early 1400s, a sex-organ cover, that became known as a codpiece (cod in Middle English meaning scrotum), and as a “braguette” in French, was introduced by tailors to preserve modesty and to protect men’s genitals. Between 1500 and 1600, codpieces grew in size taking on a grotesque shape. Heavily padded codpieces served to display men’s manliness, but they also were useful for concealing the medicated bandages worn by men who had contacted syphilis. By 1600, codpieces had been discarded. However, they made their reappearance as a novelty accessory in the 1970s. See Part II, Men’s Underwear since 1600.

Early Codpieces

The shape of the original codpiece began as a simple triangular flap, gusset or pouch, usually made from linen, with two points that were fastened by ties to the top front of men’s hose between the legs to hide their genitals. The flap satisfied decency requirements and calls of nature. Besides concealing the gap in man’s tights, the pouch was also used as a purse for storing small objects (Alchin, 2012; Anastasia, 2007, Boucher, 1973, p. 195; Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia, 2010; McKay & McKay, 2010; Ruby, 1996, p. 8-11). In northern countries with colder climates men wore a garment over the penis to protect it from frostbite during the winter months. This garment was known in some countries as a willy-warmer, a man mitten, or a testicle mitten. In Croatia men wore knitted protectors, and in Norway the warmers were usually made from the squirrel fur with the fur side worn against the skin (Wikipedia, Willy Warmer).

The codpiece, which had developed from a flat piece of fabric in the form of a pouch in which the “family jewels” rested, became more elaborate in size and ornamented in the late 1400s (Alchin, 2012).

Exaggerated Codpieces 

In the 1500s, codpieces were padded and enlarged to astounding proportions. Men quickly discovered that if they were somewhat lacking in size and stature, they could artificially enlarge their penis under the guise of fashion. Instead of concealing the genitals, the overstated codpiece became a way for men to display their manly vigor. Although men’s doublets at that time became long enough to cover the genitals, the trend was to make a special opening in the front of the doublet for the codpiece to stick out in a visible way. Some codpieces curved upward to resemble an erect penis. The popularity of the exaggerated codpieces spread across Europe (Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia, 2010; McKay & McKay, 2010).

Fashionable men, led by England’s King Henry VIII (1491–1547), padded their codpiece to enormous sizes and decorated them with jewels and embroidery. In his portraits, Henry VIII is featured wearing a very manly codpiece protruding or poking in between the slit of his short doublet. His armor, on display in the Tower of London, attests to his wearing of a very large codpiece (Boucher, 1973, p. 226-228; Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia, 2010; Durant, 1957 p. 767-768; Medieval History, 2013; McKay & McKay, 2010). Ruby (1996) explains that the codpiece in armors, dating back to the late 15th century, had a hinge that could be raised for urinating (p. 6).

Some people found creative uses for the overstuffed codpiece. Kybalova, et al. (1968) convey a little story that in Burgundy, where the codpiece became so exaggerated, people had noticed during a procession that a flag-bearer was supporting the flagpole on his protruding codpiece (p. 129-130).

The Syphilis Epidemic and Padded Codpieces In a study by C.S. Reed, published in the Internal Medicine Journal (2004), the author concludes that enlarged codpieces, in addition to being an outwardly fashion display of manliness, may have grown to enormous proportions to disguise an individual’s disease. There was a major epidemic of syphilis in Europe that began about 1494 and spread rapidly. A symptom of syphilis is that it causes foul and large volumes of mixed pus and blood that is discharged from the external genitals. Reed explains that, “the mess would require bulky woolen wads and woven cloth bandages to be applied, distorting the whole of the genital area and the lower abdomen” (p. 684). Codpieces were often of a reddish hue. The reason being, according to Reed, was that cinnabar, one of the ingredients used in the topical ointment applied to the genital area to treat the syphilis, is a vivid scarlet in colour and it would have stained the bandages (p. 685).

Reactions to the Codpiece and its Disappearance by 1600

The guardians of public morals such as priests and members of the clergy were horrified by the outrageous codpieces. In 1555, Bishop Musculus of Frankfurt,  Germany, published a pamphlet criticizing youth dress as follows: “Our young fellows have their cod-pieces in front puffed out by the flames and rags of Hell so that the Devil can sit and look out in all directions, causing scandal and creating a bad example, nay, poor, giddy, innocent girls are seduced and enticed thereby” (in Hansen, 1956, p. 127).

When Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) ascended the English throne in 1558 she was critical of the over-inflated codpiece. Given that she played an important role in dictating and influencing the fashions, the codpiece became smaller with less padding. It gradually went back to its origins of doubling as a pocket. By 1570, the codpiece was no longer fashionable, and by the early 1600s it had completely disappeared from men’s fashion (Alchin, 2012; Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia, 2010; Cunnington, 1964, p. 58; Hansen, 1956, p. 128).

For pictorial examples on the history of the exaggerated codpieces see the video on You Tube developed by Chloe Chapin


The kinds of undergarments worn by men prior to 1600 suggest that the setters of fashion trends, such as royalty and the upper echelon of society, prided themselves in preening and exhibiting their masculine assets. Their male conceit manifested itself in the lack of covering, or in the partial covering of their genitals. In the 1500s, they went to extremes as they clothed their charms in exaggerated codpieces, some of which were decorated with jewels and embroidery. One could argue that the inflated codpieces may have actually served to hide the end result of the zealous lust of certain males, syphilis.

See:  PART 2 on The History of Men’s Undergarments