Friday, October 12, 2007

Merkins and Kotekas and Codpieces, Oh My!

This is a silly post. Or rather, about things which might seem silly: genital coverings.

I was sewing a pair of trunk hose for my Significant Other, who has wanted a pair for years. I'm a Faire brat (as in the Renaissance Faire), but not the usual kind. My parents were what is considered the stodge of the Ren Faire: the craftspeople who sell their wares there. A subtle difference from the outside, but important in the social world of the Faire, because the craftspeople were mostly hardworking folk who busted butt all week to create enough of their wares for the weekend, and then sat all day in their booths waiting on people; to them it was a life-saver, a money-maker. It was work. Whereas the actors (the colorful and flamboyant staff) were people with day jobs who came to the Faire to cut loose and be someone else for the weekend. So you can imagine the personality types are very different.

My memories from very young are of taking naps in the top of the booth, with the sounds of the Faire all around, and of running around after dark among the booths where people crouched over camp-stoves or Coleman lanterns, talking quietly, while in the distance musicians sang and drunken people laughed loudly. You could buy your dinner from the sausage place, who served up food for the locals after hours, or cook your own; and there were madly obscene plays held in the theatres for anyone who wished to see them. In any case, despite the fact that I'm not an actor-type, and I am no longer allowed into the inner world of the Faire, I retain a soft spot for the costumery and the general air of the place.

So here I was, sewing trunk hose and trying to fashion a codpiece. The pattern I had, when sewn up, seemed designed to be this terrible thrusting thumb-shaped thing which I found difficult to believe. It was certainly not something designed to actually contain any anatomical parts in a useful way. Looking at the pictures from history that the pattern people provided, I did not see anything like it. Eventually, I designed my own version, but along the way I looked at lots of pictures of codpieces; and began to be really interested in the whole phenomenon of genitalia coverings.

We all know about loincloths. The need to cover one's nether regions, while not ubiquitous, is nearly so. Every land mass in the world has some version of this garment, whether it be called a fundoshi (Japan), a sirat (Borneo), or a breechcloth (Europe). In many cultures, it is the sole garment worn, historically, by both sexes.

Gollum, gollum: loincloths are seen, in Western culture, as primitive and showing a lack of social or cultural development, rather than a simple, comfortable garment

Otto Steinmayer, at the Universiti Malaya, has some interesting things to say about the wearing of loincloths; rather than a modesty issue, he says loincloths are a way to decorate our bodies, a humanizing element to distinguish ourselves from animals. The fact that the genitals become the site for creative expression is related to their social importance - ie, the importance of sex as it relates to marriage and other customs and taboos - and to the fact that restriction of copulation is one of the major points of any civilization. Therefore, loincloths and other genital coverings become important for their expression of that consciousness, that restriction. As Mr. Steinmayer says, " Some South American Indians have expressly said that they ornament themselves because if they wear no ornament they feel there is no difference between themselves and animals." He goes on to make this beautiful statement: "A loincloth is something put on the body. Western clothes that cover everything reshape the person entirely."

Metal codpieces

It is interesting, therefore, that codpieces became such a fashion statement in Renaissance times. Beginning as an easy way to cover the awkward space between the legs of men's hose, codpieces continued to be popular long after those same private bits could be tucked easily into trunk hose or other forms of baggy wear. And the styles were awfully strange. As in my "historically correct" pattern, an erect shape was common, even if it wasn't to my modern taste.

Henry VIII of England began padding his codpiece at some point, which caused a spiraling trend of larger and larger codpieces that only ended by the end of the 16th century. The fact that he may have done it to bandage over the medication of syphilis symptoms did not stop it from becoming a trend. Eventually, the trend died out, interestingly coinciding with the more modest styles of Protestantism/Puritanism. Nowadays, of course, you can still see them in any place where people wear skin-tight, manly apparel, such as in science fiction movies and on rock stars and superheros. Otherwise, all other attempts to bring them back have failed.

In New Guinea, by contrast, the wearing of Kotekas, or penis sheaths made from specially-grown gourds, is still {according to Wikipedia} going strong. "Campaigns by the Indonesian government to suppress the koteka in Papua occurred in the 1970s. The campaigns have been largely unsuccessful in areas such as the Baliem Valley.
"In 1971-1972 the government launched "Operasi Koteka" ("Operation Penis Gourd") which consisted primarily of trying to encourage the people to wear shorts and shirts because such clothes were considered more "modern." But the people did not have changes of clothing, did not have soap, and were unfamiliar with the care of such clothes so the unwashed clothing caused skin diseases. There were also reports of men wearing the shorts as hats and the women using the dresses as carrying bags.
"Missionaries in the 1950s attempted to alter the local customs by forcing locals to wear shorts. Many of the Dani of the Baliem Valley felt exposed without their kotekas and could be seen wearing shorts with their kotekas sticking out of them. Eventually the missionary effort and the Indonesian government's campaign were abandoned. Nevertheless, western clothing is required in government buildings, and children are required to wear western clothing in school. Kotekas are still considered acceptable attire in church, however."

I love that! I love how strong the people's attachment is, but then I always cheer when attempts to "modernize" a culture fail. Kotekas are interesting, being a social construct only; they hide so little and yet are so necessary to the men's sense of self and modesty. Contrary to Western belief the size and shape of a koteka are not indicative of anything other than practicality and situation. Different tribes wear differently-shaped ones, and size and elaborateness are usually a function of ceremony rather than an individual's social status.

All this is very well, what with penis-sheaths and codpieces, but what about women? We tend, in American culture, at least, to denigrate our nether regions, see them as something to be deodorized and sanitized. The recent cult for shaving and waxing is an example of how we would like the whole part to just stop being so messy. The "landing strips" that you can see on porn stars and, probably, in any women's locker room are a mere nod to the more natural state of affairs, as much a social construct as a penis sheath. The sense of taboo about women's genitalia, the desire to make them vanish or dwindle, can be seen in many cultures, in many guises: the genital mutilation still being practiced in some countries, for example, or the traditional Romany taboo against exposing objects or animals to the underside of a woman's skirts (as in stepping over things), because it will pollute them. And look at how our own Freud describes women as embodying "lack".

Thanks to the Barber Blog for the image.

Into the lines of debate about the size and luxuriance of your patch, there comes that marvelous 17th century invention, designed to hide the signs of syphillus in prostitutes: the merkin, or pubic wig. Not so common these days, except as sequinned mock-merkins in bulesque costumes (to go with pasties, instead of a g-string), merkins are on the rise in Japan under the moniker "Night Flower". Apparently underdeveloped young Japanese women turn to Chinese-made, hand-woven human hair merkins in order to "normalize" their appearance.

And then there are the fun merkins which are making their appearance on the scene. These are the postmodern interpretation of pubic hair which, curiously, does not read as obscene, even while leaving everything looking much the same shape and size as one's natural state. I think my favorite is the one, above, from Burning Man, called the "merkinlight": a merkin with flashlight. It may be silly but damn, it's cool.

On that note, you really should take a look at Merkin World, for a taste of custom merkin shopping...and a fun history of merkins.

Other links:

Nice, and very complete blog post about the merkin by The Capital Letter blog.

A Short and Curly History of the Merkin, from the Guardian archives


Unknown said...

Fascinating entry...and as a fellow Faire-brat, I appreciated it even more! ;)

I've bookmarked your blog and hope we keep in touch, post-VP!


Wood said...

The link to "the capital letter" blog seems to be broken.

Heather McDougal said...

Thanks for the note. I fixed it now!

Jean said...

Hi, Heather, here's one for your collection...
the presidential codpiece

jean vpxi

flood control said...

the morning show on z100 in ny just talked about merkins last week. it was a hysterical spot. they mentioned that they still sell them at lol.