The Fig Leaf Mentality

On Power, Masculinity, Patriarchy and Man's Most Precious Ornament

Eldridge de Paris advertisement from the International Herald Tribune, 1975.

IN TYPICAL POLEMICAL FASHION, artist Eric Gill stated in his 1937 treatise Trousers and the Most Precious Ornament, that ‘any protuberance by which his sex might be known is carefully and shamefully suppressed […] It is tucked away and all sideways, dishonoured, neglected, ridiculed and ridiculous – no longer the virile member and man’s most precious ornament.’1 A little over four decades later, former Black Panther activist, and newly established fashion designer, Eldridge Cleaver reiterated the sentiment. ‘We’ve been castrated in clothing’ he told Jet magazine in 1978, ‘My pants open up new vistas. I’m against penis binding. Men wear their penis either down the right pants leg or the left […] strapped to the leg.’2

It was a particular form of masculinity and male expression that Cleaver believed had been suppressed through conventional male clothing and through the design of a new style of trousers wanted to ‘free up’. His variety of male sexual expression was one where the penis is on display, in a way not seen in Western male fashion since the demise of the codpiece in the fifteenth century, a conspicuous element of clothing that is noteworthy not for its importance as a sexual invitation to women, but rather as an aggressive and eye-catching warning to men. In other words, the codpiece was significant as a symbol for social, temporal and territorial power rather than just sexual prowess. Historian Thomas Alan King has noted that the elimination of the codpiece as a fashionable garment ‘did not so much veil the penis as produce the phallus, that sign of privacy vested in the natural group of masculinity and registering a man’s autonomy from any incitement to display.’3 Although the codpiece has been obsolete in fashion since its demise five centuries ago, British journalist Rodney Bennett, noting the fashion for closely fitting crotch-hugging trousers in the 1960s, observed that ‘once again, we have a codpiece, albeit a concealed one, to give a fellow self-assurance (should he need it).’4 Eldridge Cleaver, however, was not satisfied with concealed codpieces. Instead, he saw himself as the man, and designer, to ‘put sex back where it should be’ countering what he described as ‘the problem of the fig-leaf mentality.’5 In an attempt to remedy this mindset, he designed two styles of trousers; one with an oval pouch, similar in shape to an athletic support cup in which the genitals sat, and another with a sheath-like pouch protruding from the front into which the penis was placed, with a smaller pouch behind for the wearer’s testicles.

The designs themselves and Cleaver’s statement that clothes, and trousers in particular, have ‘castrated’ men echoes a regularly returning movement in male fashion, reflecting art historian Margaret Walters’ observation that the concerns about hiding rather than revealing the male genitals is a ‘symbolic castration of the male body.’6 While Walters is discussing images and representation, her opinion is relevant also with regards to the (in)visibility of male genitalia in modern fashion, for, as she continues, this concealment implies a ‘preoccupation’ with the hidden or missing genitals, which by remaining unrevealed becomes endowed with a ‘fantasy’ of ‘impossible power.’7 Media studies scholar Peter Lehman expands on Walters’ propositions, discussing how the exposure and representation of the penis has been regulated in various discourses and art forms, highlighting the paradox that where ‘the penis is hidden it is centered.’8 In other words, power is bestowed not only to the image of the (concealed) penis, but upon the phallus as an invisible signifier of masculinity and male power.

The word ‘power’ significantly crops up in both Walters’ and Lehman’s discussions as a reminder of philosopher Michel Foucault’s adage that ‘power comes from everywhere’ and thus permeates all social relations and impacts upon all actions and behaviours.9 Foucault also contends that ‘where there is power, there is resistance’10 and in Cleaver’s designing, producing and wearing these overtly sexualised and phallic fronted trousers he is arguably offering a form of resistance to the hegemonic strictures of male dress that called for such expressions of the male form and sexuality to be hidden or constrained. Drawing on psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s distinction between the corporeal state of the penis and the symbolic power of the phallus, photographer and art critic Melody D. Davis concludes that ‘the idea of the unseen penis transforms to the phallus’ which in turns becomes the man, who in turn ‘represent[s]’ both the “power of the product” and that of the purchaser of that product.’11 Seen in this light, in Cleaver’s trousers the penis-encasing sheaf reveals both the wearer’s flesh and blood penis (as the trousers could be ‘made to measure’) and the symbolic phallus representing power, masculinity and patriarchy.

Foucault is similarly concerned with the ways in which the body is impacted upon by power relations, in the ways it is marked, trained or emits signs, proposing that the body is ‘a useful source only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.’12 This power over the body is, according to Foucault, invisible and insidious because of the concealed but effective impact, intervening ‘against individuals because of what they are’13 and so each individual (and thus perhaps his body) ‘is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.’14

Eldridge Cleaver himself was no stranger to the resistance of hegemonic power. Following his release from prison in 1966, after servicing sentences for rape, assault and attempted murder Cleaver joined the revolutionary Black Panther Party, becoming the party spokesperson due to his flair for writing and public speaking. Whilst in prison Cleaver had begun writing and in 1968 his book Soul on Ice, which addressed his views on crime and prisons, black liberation and race relations as well as gender, sexuality and black masculinity, was published. In the same year as the release of his book, Cleaver was arrested following a shootout with police during which Panther party member Bobby Hutton was killed. Cleaver jumped bail and fled the United States, eventually settling in Paris. It was here that he used some of the earnings from the sale of Soul on Ice to launch his fashion designs. Following his return from exile, Cleaver opened a store in West Hollywood, which sold his phallic trousers for around $25, and eventually took out an advert in the International Herald Tribune to find additional backers. Despite Cleaver’s confidence in his revolutionary new style of trousers that would allow men to reassert their masculine power, they predictably did not prove to be a success. The newspaper coverage they received, perhaps unsurprisingly, treated them as a joke, and in 1978 The National Religious Broadcasters removed a film about Cleaver from their convention schedule in protest at the overt designs.

Curiously however, and perhaps implying that rebellion against the ‘fig leaf mentality’ was in the air, Cleaver’s trousers bear a remarkable comparison with two styles produced by British designer Antony Price. His 1969 Ziggurat Trousers were designed to ‘emphasise the crotch and to lift and separate the buttocks,’15 and featured on the back of the cover of Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer, where they are stuffed with a cucumber to give the impression of a big penis. Discussing his similarly constructed 1979 ‘arse pants,’ designed to pull up the wearer’s crotch and buttocks Price noted, in a statement that somewhat mirrors Cleaver’s opinions on the presentation of masculinity, that ‘male sexuality had reached a peak of extreme rudeness and male was the sex to be.’16 Cleaver would no doubt have agreed. In an advertisement for his trousers the ‘new fall collection from Eldridge de Paris’ is modelled by Cleaver himself. The penis pouch is a dark colour strikingly emphasised against the light coloured panels that run down the front of the legs. The advert and Cleaver’s comments in other contemporary publications significantly describe them as trousers for ‘men only’ that couldn’t be worn by women.

Although Eldridge Cleaver’s trousers were never a financial or sartorial success and met little response other than ridicule, they do make us question how we respond to such a brazen display of male physical prowess. Over the past two centuries Western men’s fashion has on the whole been restrained, beginning with what psychologist J.C. Flugel termed the ‘great masculine renunciation,’17 a proposition that Eric Gill reiterated in his 1937 ‘precious ornament’ discussion. While Flugel’s propositions have themselves been ‘renounced’ in the more recent academic work on men’s fashion, it is still the case that on the whole men’s dress is more conservative than women’s and that overt displays of sexuality have been frowned upon or seen as rebellious or revolutionary. In a ‘post-feminist’ age following the discussions about the crisis in masculinity that occurred throughout the latter part of the twentieth century we do have to question the covert display of the penis in men’s fashion.

While nothing quite so brazen as Cleaver’s ‘penis pants’ have appeared, designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, Walter van Beirendonck and Bernhard Willhelm have all sent trousers that either emphasised the crotch or referenced the codpiece down the catwalk over the past two decades. Spring/summer 2013 saw a collaboration between American brand Opening Ceremony and artist Yoko Ono that placed a contrast colour ‘handprint’ on the crotch of their trousers, again drawing attention to this area and prompting the question of how this relates to the visibility of the penis and male sexuality. While the contrast colour combinations remind us of Clever’s penis pants it is perhaps the humour that is evident in this collaborative design that stops it from being subjected to the same type of ridicule that Cleaver faced. The recent vogue for underwear brands to produce enhancement garments demonstrates the concern that men have about their crotches, and while they are not as blatant as to put the penis on display they do reference the supposed power that is associated with a bigger penis as a signifier of a more masculine man. This ties in with the controversy that has surrounded recent celebrity advertising of men’s underwear, such as the footballer David Beckham in adverts for both Emporio Armani and H&M, and the question of whether they have ‘stuffed’ or digitally enhanced their designer pants. This can be compared with the trend for ‘going commando’ and the fascination that the press and blogging sites such as The Underwear Expert have with posting images and commenting on celebrity sightings of those who are letting their tackle dangle freely. In both instances the clothed penis could be read as an invisible signifier of the phallus which in turn represents masculinity. While there is a form of display of the penis operating within contemporary men’s fashion, it is still somewhat frowned upon for the naked, exposed, flaccid penis, and certainly unacceptable in its erect state, to be on blatant public display. Nevertheless, the concealed penis as phallus, our symbolic representation of masculinity, continues to make its powerful presence known and felt in our contemporary Western society. It’s a short step from the fig-leaf mentality to the enduring power of patriarchy.

Dr Shaun Cole is a writer, curator and researcher in fashion and cultural studies, particularly men’s fashion and subcultural dress. He is the Course Director of the Masters in History and Culture of Fashion, and Fashion Curation at the London College of Fashion.

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Fashion and Power.

  1. E Gill, Trousers and the Most Precious Ornament, Faber and Faber, London, 1937, p.1 

  2. ‘Eldridge Cleaver Designs Pants “For Men Only”’, Jet, vol. 55, no. 1, pp.22-24. Accessed 18 August 2013 

  3. T A King, The Gendering of Men, 1600-1750, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2004, p174 

  4. R Bennett-England, Dress Optional: The Revolution in Menswear, Peter Owen, London, 1967, pp.44-5 

  5. Cited in H Silva, ‘Radical Chic’ New York Times Magazine, 23 September 2001. Accessed 18 August 2013 

  6. M Walter, The Male Nude: A New Perspective, Penguin, London 1978, pp.84 

  7. Ibid, p.85 

  8. P Lehman, Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2007, p.5, p. 30 

  9. M Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1978, p.93 

  10. Ibid p.95 

  11. M D Davis, The Male Nude in Contemporary Photography, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1991, p.17. 

  12. M Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books, New York, 1995, p.26 

  13. M Foucault (translated and edited by C Gordon), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, Harvester, Brighton, 1980, pp.73-4 

  14. Ibid 

  15. P York, ‘Selling Price,’ Harpers & Queen on 

  16. cited in P Tierney, ‘Thrills, Frills & Bellyaches,’ Pop, Autumn/Winter 2005-6. 

  17. J.C. Flugel, The Psychology of Clothes, International Universities Press, New York, 1930