Women in History: Alma Mahler

Alma Mahler was one of the most interesting women in late 19th/early 20th century Vienna. Her (male) contemporaries also found her fascinating, and an astounding number of creative men fell victim to her charms—painter Gustav Klimt, composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, artist Oskar Kokoschka, and writer Franz Werfel are just some of them.

While she wielded a good deal of power over her men, she was not always free from pressure from them. As a young woman, she studied music and counterpoint and had begun to compose art songs when she married Gustav Mahler, who made her promise to give up composing music. He didn’t want his wife to be his competitor.

I’ve always wondered how her life would have been different if she had told him to take a hike and kept on with her creative pursuit instead of becoming involved with one creative man after another.

 

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The Codpiece Conundrum

“Portrait of Alessandro Farnese,” by Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531). Antonis Mor, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As an author of historical romance, I can assure you the devil is in the details. Readers are well educated and do not hesitate to call out an author when questioning the authenticity or accuracy of a story element, no matter how trivial.

That makes it even more important to do one’s research and do it well. It’s my experience that some aspects of history are more fun to dive into than others. I greatly enjoy studying architecture and music, but if fashion is your fancy, let me share a bit of trivia about the codpiece.

First, the origins of this fifteenth century wardrobe staple.

In the 15th century men’s dress comprised doublet or tunic (worn on the top half of the body), hose (bottom half) with a mantle or cloak (worn over the outfit). Hose were two separate wool or linen leggings that fastened into the doublet, rather in the style of fisherman’s waders. As doublets became shorter, and the length of mantles also decreased, the tell-tale bulge (or more) of gentlemen’s privy parts became evident beneath their under-shirts.

…evidence suggests that the early codpiece was constructed from a triangular shaped piece of cloth called a ‘braye’. The bottom tip of the triangle was stitched to the hose and the remaining corners fastened to the doublet to form a kind of gusset. This soft triangular flap was superseded by a stuffed and padded shape designed to hold what Montaigne coyly called “our secret parts” and John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary lists as “pillcocke or pricke”.

(Source:  What goes up must come down: a brief history of the codpiece)

Other historians theorize that codpieces were a sort of protective device, used to contain the messy poultices and concoctions applied for treatment of syphilis and prevent staining of one’s garments. The soft cloth codpiece eventually evolved into a boxy, ostentatious accessory, some even embroidered and bejewelled.

(Source:  A Brief History of the Codpiece, the Personal Protection for Renaissance Equipment)

By the sixteenth century, codpieces were no longer in vogue. Their quick rise and fall, so to speak, as fifteenth century high fashion has not diminished our fascination with a garment intended to preserve modesty, not provoke our curiosity about what lay beneath it.