I can think of no other textile so quintessentially ‘English’ and ‘country’ as corduroy – think farmer, cord trousers held up with baling twine or the upper classes off for a day’s shooting. So I was surprised, after a little investigation, to discover that it is a relatively modern derivation of fustian, a cloth woven during Roman times in Egypt and thought to have originated from the city of Fustat. Fustian, like corduroy, is a plain or twill weave with supplementary weft yarns that form ribs running the length of the fabric. It was originally woven with a linen warp and cotton weft, although other unions, for example cotton and wool, have been popular through the ages. This differs from modern, quality corduroy which is generally 100% cotton. The other distinct difference is that with fustian the weft is not cut, leaving a hard cord, whereas with corduroy part of the finishing process is the cutting of the weft to form the ‘pile’ of the soft cord.
Fustian travelled to Europe from the 12th to the 14th century, accompanied by a number of family members, most notably velvet, and was initially favoured by royalty and the aristocracy. It was also a firm favourite with the clergy and at one time Cistercian monks were allowed to weave no other cloth. Unlike velvet, however, corduroy did not keep its place at the top table. Corduroy’s modern name is thought to come from the French, ‘cord du roi’ or ‘King’s cord’, possibly due to the fact that in 17th and 18th century France royal servants were known to wear it as uniform.
By the 18th century it was the modern, practical, ‘sporty’ choice for outdoor clothing due to its qualities of warmth and durability and its ability to dry (relatively) quickly. By the end of the 18th century though, this was all it was seen as – the prestige and association with wealth had gone. During the 19th century although on the one hand it became popular with gentleman farmers, on the other it became the urban working man’s uniform. Where velvet had retained all its associations with money, royalty, glamour and the night, nothing said a day’s work like corduroy – the English denim.
A velvet clad toff, in stark contrast with the working farmer!
The 20th century saw a marked improvement in corduroy’s prestige due to the fact that it was picked up by the smart set for sporting and leisurewear during the ‘20s and ‘30s. However, the credentials that had always made it so down-right practical meant that it also saw use as soldiers’ uniforms during WW1, upholstery for Henry Ford’s ‘Model T’ and jodhpurs for the Women’s Land Army – giving their sartorial signature.
Women’s Land Army recruits, dressed in cord and ready for the hard graft ahead of them!
During the 1960s soft, warn corduroy was donned as an anti-establishment symbol. It was the ‘70s, however, that saw the biggest explosion in popularity that corduroy has ever known. During this decade people of all ages, classes and colours swathed themselves in cord of every shade then lounged on their corduroy clad sofas!
There are no words!
Although corduroy originated in the east, by the 16th century fustians were being widely manufactured in Britain. Lancashire was a hot-spot of production and in many parts of Europe corduroy is still called ‘Manchester’ (a bit of a contrast with ‘cord du roi’!) Sadly though, there is no production left in the U.K. Today a myriad of cords, ranging from needle cord (at 14-18 cords or ‘wales’ per inch) through to elephant or ‘constitutional’ cords at as few as 3 wales are still being produced and consumed worldwide. That said, you might be waiting a long time before it becomes super-trendy again (in large part because we’ve all been left feeling a bit queasy from the ‘70s!) It seems to me that in its main application as clothing corduroy is a bit of an unsung hero of the wardrobe; like the potatoes on the plate, over-shadowed by their tastier, more exotic and highly seasoned companions. Yet in the present day this wonder-cloth can boast more kudos when used for upholstery. In this application it seems to have managed to untie the fetters of bumbling country squire and dicey cord flares and instead attained an air of knowing cool!
Victorian armchair upholstered in Tinsmiths’ Forest Corduroy