Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Henry VIII Henry VIII, painted here by Hans Holbein the Younger, often made sure his codpiece was visible in portraits. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For most of us, codpieces are spotted only at Renaissance fairs or during Shakespearean productions. But where did these decorative coverings of the male genitalia come from? How were they used in past times? These questions leads us back many centuries.

While some fashion historians date the emergence of the codpiece (from the Middle English for "scrotum-piece") to the Middle Ages, recent archaeological evidence begs to differ. A dig in Crete unearthed ancient statues of various sizes showing men apparently wearing codpieces.

But their history begins in earnest in the 1300s, when male high fashion featured a rise in hemlines and jackets that all but exposed male private parts. Men at the time were wearing a type of hose that went up to the top of the thigh but there was nothing to cover the crotch. Something needed to be done. Small pouches of fabric were "invented" and were tied around the waist. The function of the codpiece was established, and there were no embellishments for a couple of centuries.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's painting of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II of Austria and his familyGiuseppe Arcimboldo's painting of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II of Austria and his wife Infanta Maria of Spain with their children. Maximilian wears a codpiece in the painting. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The 1500s marked the pinnacle of the codpiece. The accessory went from necessity to fashion statement. Codpieces in the 16th century did double-duty: the exaggerated size and decoration made a statement of virility and, some scholars contend, they even held medicine-soaked linen for the treatment of various venereal diseases. King Henry VIII was a fan, and his portraits often featured codpieces of different styles and colors.

As time went on, codpieces were eventually incorporated into suits of armor to provide protection and to make movement easier within the bulky metal outfits. Authentic armor featuring codpieces are on display in museum collections in London and New York. Modern groups that reenact jousts and other bygone sporting events usually feature codpieces as part of their standard costumes. A possibly embellished story places Edward III of England (1312-1377) ordering his army to wear large codpieces during battle to intimidate the French soldiers during the Hundred Years' War. (Whether this was successful or not is not recorded)

Alice Cooper sports a codpiece during a performance in 2002.Alice Cooper sports a codpiece during a performance in 2002. (Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

Although not anywhere near as popular as they were during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, codpieces are still in evidence today. The entertainment industry has embraced the codpiece in movies such as "Star Wars" and "Batman & Robin," and bands such as KISS, Jethro Tull, Judas Priest and showman Alice Cooper (pictured above) have all occasionally incorporated codpieces into their costumes. And a search for "codpiece" on eBay at the time of this writing resulted in 700-plus items of varying design and purpose.

As an aside, some societies in New Guinea still include codpiece-like objects called "kotekas" that are made by hollowing out suitably-shaped gourds. And the codpiece's cousin, the plastic or metal athletic cup (invented in 1927 by Guelph Elastic Hosiery located in Ontario, Canada), is widely used in different sporting games around the globe for added protection beneath standard uniforms.

What is the future of the codpiece? Will it eventually come back into fashion for the stylish male? Will we see them on fashion runways in Paris and New York? It's possible. If bolo ties and pocket watches can come back into fashion, why not the codpiece?

How the codpiece solved a fashion emergency
At first, codpieces were more about function than form, but then they eventually became fashion statements onto themselves.