Corduroy: The Fabric that’s Fit for a King

Man wearing a corduroy jacket
Image credit: cottonbro from Pexels

Regular visitors to this site may have noticed an abiding fondness for all things fusty here at Habilitate. I typically can’t get enough of garments or textiles that wouldn’t look out of place on your average octogenarian. Cardigans, bucket hats, flat caps, and Birkenstocks — all examples of the eternal cool of the old school and, indeed, the elderly. I haven’t gone as far as writing about orthopaedic shoes, but the site (unlike much of my taste) is still young.

At the top of the pile of things that embody senior citizen chic is corduroy. It is (to my way of thinking, at least) as gloriously grandfatherly as tattersall shirts and quilted jackets, all while being considerably more approachable than either of those. 

Plus, it turns out that corduroy itself is no spring chicken. The history of the material stretches back over 2 000 years to the ancient Egyptian city of Al-Fustat, an erstwhile hub for woven textiles. The fabric in question, however, wasn’t corduroy as we know it, but rather a thickly woven precursor known as fustian. Today neither the city nor the original textile is all that well known, the former having been swallowed up by present-day Cairo while the latter is remembered chiefly as a word meaning pompous or pretentious writing or speech. 

According to Merriam-Webster, the original sense of the word denoting a type of fabric dates from the 13th century. The second meaning related to extravagance and affectation, however, came about around three hundred years later, with one of its earliest uses appearing in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. It’s also around this time that fustian as a fabric gained some royal credentials since Henry VIII (who died just a few decades before the first performance of Marlowe’s play) is said to have owned many garments made from the stuff. In a similar vein, there’s also the oft-repeated but apocryphal story about the word corduroy deriving from the French corde du roi, meaning ‘king’s cord’.

Vintage worker wearing corduroy trousers
Dorothea Lange’s photo taken in Texas in 1937 of a carrot puller wearing corduroys
Image credit: The New York Public Library on Unsplash

For all of the pomp (real or otherwise), corduroy in its fledgling state has also long been associated with humbler circumstances. At one point in its history fustian became affiliated with the Catholic church, owing to a Cistercian abbot who insisted chasubles (the outer vestments worn by priests) be made using basic fabrics like linen or fustian in place of more expensive materials. Friedrich Engels, the German philosopher and long-time collaborator of Karl Marx, referred in The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 to fustian as ‘the proverbial costume of the working-men’, noting that fustian garments had become so common among working-class people at the time that they began calling themselves ‘fustian jackets’ in contrast to the bourgeoisie who wore broadcloth.

Modern corduroy arrives in the mills and factories of 18th-century Manchester. While the true derivation of the word is somewhat unclear, it seems likely to have come from ‘duroy’, a coarse woollen cloth that was made in England around this time, chiefly for use in menswear. Appropriately, the textile in question is still referred to as ‘Manchester’ in parts of Europe.

Corduroy is defined by its ridged, parallel lines — known as wales — which are made by weaving layers of thread onto a base fabric. These are then raised following a process of glueing, cutting, and brushing which produces the desired velvety, ribbed finish.

Vintage Levi's corduroy ad
A Levi’s Cone Corduroy advertisement from 1972
Image credit: SenseiAlan / CC BY 2.0

As far as modern corduroy is concerned, I have long wondered why it hasn’t inspired nearly the same fanaticism that its fellow working fabric denim has (barring corduroy’s vogue in the 1970s, when everyone and everything seems to have been covered in the stuff). Unlike in the case of denim, there are precious few corduroy-focussed upstarts or dedicated fan communities (Wales Corduroy, which fits both descriptions, is about the only example that comes to mind). And, as a fan myself, it’s hard to say exactly why.

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in its aforementioned history. Unlike the relative upstart that is denim (with its comparatively embryonic 19th-century origins), corduroy has been around in one form or another for millennia and, as evinced by the confusion about the origins of its name, we’re somehow still struggling to get a firm handle on it. 

It certainly can’t be pinned down to a narrowly defined set of wearers. Although I framed corduroy as being grandfatherly at the outset, that’s barely the tip of the iceberg. Much as it connotes the elderly, it has equally found a place in youth culture several times over, not to mention being a perennial favourite for dressing up children under the age of five or so.

Similarly, it may well be called the ‘poor man’s velvet’, but show me an ivy-covered institution that doesn’t also have more than its fair share of chord-clad denizens. It’s a fabric worn by beatniks, preps, surfers, hippies, artists, rockers, aristocrats, and others. You’ve also likely seen it sported by Steve McQueen, Mick Jagger, Pablo Picasso, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson; by everyone from The Sundance Kid to The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Corduroy has a take-it-or-leave-it quality. Like the cilantro of textiles, it simply isn’t for everyone, what with its unusual, characterful appearance — you might even call it a little eccentric. No wonder then that chords have long appealed to creatives, intellectuals, and free-thinkers of varying stripes (or should we say wales).

I fell under its spell back when I was a child, well before I was in charge of dressing myself. Ever since I took over that particular duty, however, I’ve rarely kept a pair of corduroys too far out of reach. If forced to whittle down my personal wardrobe to just what could fit inside the average traveller’s case, I’d probably pick a corduroy suit well before getting to the usual base staples like blue blazers or grey flannels. Such a suit can be dressed up or down (to a point, at least), it works well together or as separates, plus it’s cool, comfortable, and characterful, and will only grow more so with wear. With trousers, I enjoy a wide and a thin wale, I like them with five pockets or otherwise, and I’ll take them in any autumnal shade you could muster — anyway, you get the idea. Best to stop typing and get onto finding my next pair because, spurious or not, for me there is no question that corduroys are fit for a king.

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery wearing corduroy
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
Image credit: PhotosNormandie / CC BY-SA 2.0

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