At this point, fustian had not yet acquired the distinctive ridges that would transform it into corduroy. These were developed by British textile manufacturers as fustian moved down the social scale in the 18th century – already, at this point, it was favoured by schoolmasters, forebears of the stereotypical 1970s academic. Perhaps the ridges – known as “wales”, from the Old English word “walu”, which means weal or stripe – came about as a means of strengthening the fabric and extending its lifespan.
This would certainly help explain its popularity as a material for working men’s clothing after the Industrial Revolution. In 1844, the German philosopher Friedrich Engels was still referring to it by its old name, noting the ubiquitousness of fustian garb among labourers while he was researching The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels – whose father owned a textile factory in Salford – lived in Manchester at the height of the Chartist movement, which sought political representation for the workers. For them, the historian Paul Pickering has written, the wearing of fustian was “a statement of class without words”.
The transition from fustian to corduroy happened gradually. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word “corduroy” was in 1774. There’s no real consensus on its origins, but the romantic idea that it was derived from the French ‘corde du roi’ (“king’s cords”) has been debunked. Some say it’s a combination of “cord” and “duroy”, a coarse woollen cloth; others think it may just have been given a French-sounding name by British merchants eager to capitalise on the vogue for French textiles. Whatever the truth, its fancy title didn’t translate well in continental Europe, where it is still often known as “Manchester” in tribute to the Lancashire mills where it was first made.