Crown Jewels: The Topic That Fashion Won't Tackle

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Any tailor worth his cloth will enquire of a gentleman whether he dresses left or right, and it is rumoured that most men incline to the sinister direction. This could just be a myth, of course: like the male member itself, hard numbers are rarely seen.

Sartorial mores are to blame for this lack of data. Men are allowed to dress obscenely, pairing Birkenstocks with knee socks, for example, or wearing money belts for holiday travel, but the penis – that prerequisite for all men’s style – must remain shrouded. Sometimes in Y-fronts, sometimes in boxer shorts, but always in mystery.

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The physical geography of his penis – its length, girth and topology – will arguably define a man’s adventure through life more than the location of his birth, and yet no fashion will reveal it. Instead men’s styles tend to flatter variables believed to be correlated: there never was a modish shoe that made the foot shorter, nor a suit that narrowed the shoulders.

The penis itself remains a dagger cloaked; a budgie smuggled. Even menswear’s more robust epochs have tended to hide the penis in plain sight. Many are the small boys who have eyed with wonder Henry VIII’s mighty battle armour and its magnificently improbable codpiece.

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A man with an invisible penis is a sentence with a verb missing; difficult to read. And from the very first fig leaf, men’s fashions through the ages have changed everything but that singular central mystery. On the rare occasions when one is glimpsed in the wild, the penis itself is no help at all thanks to its famous trick of plasticity.

What a great joker it is, constantly changing its configuration according to ambient temperature, alcoholic intake and a host of perceptual stimuli not even limited to the erotic. A man may awake from a dream in which he has experienced nothing hotter than a mislaid wallet, to find himself positively priapic.

To which niche of men’s style shall we go, then, in order to know a man’s secret self? Why, to the internet of course! Here, on the kind of websites created for people who want to meet men but not necessarily to be their best friends forever, there is a paradoxical outbreak of intimacies.

Now the penis, coming first, is photographed like a perp and described with dispassion. Its dimensions are stated both at leisure and on duty. Also listed with impressive diligence are all structural modifications the penis may have undergone, along with details of any adorning jewellery. (Indeed, many an unsuspecting parent’s first insight into this hidden world of openness has arrived while googling ‘Prince Albert’ as part of their child’s school project on the Victorians).

It is as if big disembodied penises were roaming the earth, fully autonomous, promising to please, and identifiable only by those thoroughly unsatisfying internet monikers that reveal anything except identity.

All that is missing from these earnestly phallocentric websites is a few words about the man himself – and for the student of human character this may prove a source of frustration. It transpires that it is not possible, after all, to infer the brevity of a man’s wit entirely from the lengthiness of his penis.

Perhaps this is why men’s clothing of all stripes – excepting those very exclusive, rubber-based couturiers that used to be found in Soho – continues to cover the genitals rather than the face. (Maybe this nostalgic attachment to character is also why men stubbornly persist in forming their clubs and associations on the basis of geographical proximity. There is a Wycombe Wanderers, but no Eight Inch Irregulars).

It seems that there is no category of men’s style in which the penis and the person are simultaneously visible – unless, of course, one dares to access the secret kingdom of the naturists. In the UK, this is endearingly difficult to do by accident.

At a typical British nudist beach, such as the neatly named Studland, the erogenous zone is ring fenced and signposted as though it was more than just a figurative minefield. The 900m stretch of coastline is delineated by green posts and blue warning signs on the perimeter: NATURISTS MAY BE SEEN BEYOND THIS POINT. All that is missing are tank traps and razor wire entanglements.

Within the bounds of this reservation a small number of men, accompanied by a smaller band of women, enjoy the oneness with nature that comes from shedding all articles of clothing except those useful for beach sports. Some of the men are so nicely accessorised with trainers, socks, wrist bands, baseball caps, bum bags, watches, iPhone armbands, headphones and sunglasses that the penis itself, asexualised and bobbing cheerfully to the rhythms of whatever jog or swingball is currently preoccupying its owner, seems rather a sideshow. And indeed it is this aspect of naturism, a little ridiculous at first sight, that is perhaps its genius.

While classical art is full of giants with tiny manhoods and cherubs hung like bears, and contemporary men’s style either conceals the male member entirely or majors on it to the exclusion of all other input, the naturists have, at least, got the penis in some kind of proportion.

Like all elect peoples they even have a rather brilliant word for the heathen: they call us clothes wearers ‘textiles’. In context they might say, “So, did you see they locked up the Naked Rambler again? Six years in prison and counting, all for the crime of dressing neither left nor right. Well, that’s the textiles for you…”

Men’s style — in all its enjoyable and eccentric variations — began with the serpent telling us we were naked. Now our very language echoes our fear of public nudity and its identification with loss. Our emperors have no clothes. Our bankers have taken the shirts from our backs. Our economy is threadbare. And so, fellow textiles, however you dress, do wrap up warm. These days, whichever way you cut your jib, you want to have your crown jewels covered.