TOAST Magazine

The History of Corduroy


Amy Bradford explores the history of corduroy.

Given that there’s a 1970s style revival in full swing, it’s no surprise that corduroy is back in fashion. It chimes perfectly with the conker-brown and mustard shades, deep-lapel collars and wide, high-waisted trousers currently on the runways. Members of the Corduroy Appreciation Club, a New York-based “secret society” that only meets on dates resembling corduroy (such as November 11th, or 11/11) must feel that their time has come.

Secret societies notwithstanding, the 1970s was the last time corduroy was genuinely cool, buoyed by the sartorial choices of Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot (who between them could render anything iconic). Since then the fabric’s identity has been constantly shifting, between fustiness on the one hand (country squires on hunting trips) and flamboyance on the other (Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker in his anti-cool corduroy suit).

Corduroy in its newest guise is a celebration of this quirky glamour. It is practical without being drab; plush without being flashy. Those 1970s intellectuals doubtless appreciated corduroy for its durability as well as its looks. What they would also have known – and what has been almost forgotten since – is that its status as anti-establishment badge of cool was no accident. In fact, for much of the 19th century, corduroy was a symbol both of working-class identity and political radicalism.

Of which, more later, but first, it’s worth going further back in time to explore the origins of corduroy. Legend has it that around 200BC, the Egyptian city of Fustat – now swallowed up by Cairo – invented and gave its name to fustian, a heavy cloth with a raised, sheared nap that was similar to velvet or moleskin. It was brought to Europe in medieval times by Italian and Spanish merchants, where it was used to line gowns and doublets for warmth and a fashionable padded look. Henry VIII owned many fustian garments – perhaps it was his bulked-up silhouette that Shakespeare had in mind when he began using the word “fustian” as a synonym for pompous windbaggery (“Discourse fustian with one’s own shadow,” Cassio scolds Iago in Othello).

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.

The wales, that now define the look of corduroy, were created by weaving layers of threads into a base fabric, followed by various gluing, cutting and brushing treatments. Wales are measured in ridges per inch; the higher the wale, the finer the cord, with pincord being considered the finest and elephant cord the thickest. 

Today, corduroy is having a moment, and what was once “poor man’s velvet” is now simply “the new velvet” – with that little extra je ne sais quoi. At TOAST, we have loved it for a long time, and are happy to see it take the limelight - for a short while at least!

Words by Amy Bradford

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