Corduroy: a complete history
Corduroy is a truly vintage textile of cotton or cotton-mix fabric with a raised, ribbed, sheared surface nap and underlying weave. It is made from woven, twisted fibres which lie in parallel rows or ‘cords’ to form the cloth’s texture. The cords usually have a channel between them.
Corduroy has a velvety feel making it durable yet soft to touch. It has been used mainly for men’s working and sporting clothing throughout the centuries. Modern uses include trousers, shirts, skirts, suits, caps, dresses, jackets, toys and soft furnishing. The character of corduroy has not changed greatly since the late 18th Century.
The history of corduroy
Corduroy evolves from the ancient cotton weave known as ‘fustian’. This manufactured textile existed for thousands of years before it came to acquire the name of corduroy as we know it.
It is being used and manufactured in 200 AD in Egypt, in a city called Fustat near Cairo (the capital of Arabian Egypt at this time). The fabric becomes known as ‘fustian’ in 12th Century Europe. It becomes more popular with the growth in the cotton trade from the 12th – 14th centuries, distributing the fabric throughout Europe via Italy.
Fustian is part of the family of tufted velvety textiles originating in the East and exported throughout Europe. It becomes a sought-after exotic fabric amongst royalty and wealthy Europeans.
Imitation fustian textiles are manufactured throughout Europe from 14th-16th centuries. Fustian becomes a more general name for any textile that looks like the original cotton-based woven product. From the mid to late 16th Century fustians are being manufactured in the UK in London, Norwich, Lancashire and Ireland using a cotton and wool blend or linen and cotton blend. By the 18th Century fustian becomes commonly known as a cotton and linen mix woven fabric with a raised and sheared nap.
18th Century corduroy and royalty-inspired fashion
In 18th Century England, the cloth is manufactured as a modern, practical choice of outdoor textile. It is warm, dries quickly and is hard-wearing. Cheaper versions of fustian are produced in brushed pile. Slightly more expensive is a longer brushed pile and the most expensive versions were a true-cut pile made using the original technique. This more expensive Naples fustian continues the elite reputation of the textile worn by King Henry VIII in the 16th Century.
The cheaper fustians are considered modest yet popular sporty garments for use in riding horses and the military. Dandy highwayman Dick Turpin orders new fustian garments especially for his execution in 1739.
Fustian is also commonly used for servant’s livery and undergarments as well as outerwear and competes with wool garments for popularity. Ribbed fustian becomes widely available which more closely resembles the corduroy we recognise from the 20th Century.
Towards the end of the 18th Century fustian once again becomes a purely practical, protective textile used in working garments. It becomes especially popular amongst schoolmasters and those in ink-based trades (an image that still is associated with corduroy today). White fustian is also adopted for ladies’ dresses at this time. Fustian starts to become known as ‘cotton velvet’ and ‘corduroy’ in England.
19th Century working class uniform
By the turn of the 19th Century the ribbed corduroy fabric is very popular with both country gentlemen and farmers alike. However, by Victorian times, corduroy starts to be seen as the urban working man’s uniform due to its inflexibility for fashionable-shaped tailoring and its durability. Until it becomes fashionable again in the 20th Century corduroy is firmly fixed as a signifier of class for decades. By the 19th Century corduroy is being mass-produced in factories all over Europe and America. Used by workers, artists and students it has the image of ‘poor man’s velvet’.
But why is it called corduroy?
In the 17th Century, French royal servants were known to wear a fine but durable woven velvet fustian-style fabric made from silk.
The word corduroy is coined in England around the late 18th Century as an early form of branding using the French translation of ‘cloth of the King’ (corde du roi). This is perhaps to promote an image of royal quality and to give the English-manufactured cotton cloth an air of French prestige.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites 1774 as the earliest date of use of the word ‘corduroy’.
French-manufactured textiles have a great reputation in England at this time. Strangely, French adverts from the early 19th Century used the English translation of ‘corde du roi’ to sell the cloth in France as ‘kings-cords’. Confused? Me too.
20th Century corduroy
Corduroy becomes popular as a children’s fabric in the early 20th Century. Some schools in America and French Scouts adopt it in uniforms.
Carrying on its traditional use for sporty and military wear, it is also worn as trousers by mountain climbers, car drivers and in soldiers’ uniform trousers in World War I throughout Europe. The Women’s Land Army also wore corduroy breeches. In 1918 the new Ford Model T automobile uses hard-wearing, luxurious corduroy as upholstery.
Corduroy continues its popularity in 1920s and 30s fashion with suits, trousers, caps and jackets being worn not just as workwear but as practical fashion material for the modern, sporty age. Corduroy shorts are also seen being worn by boys post-WWI. Corduroy continues to be used as work and sports wear throughout the century.
Since the 1950s corduroy goes in and out of style several times and is been worn by all ages, rich and poor. Everytime it seems that corduroy has gone seriously out of fashion, it emerges again and gets an update. Even corduroy upholstery suffers from the ever- changing phases of fashion.
During the late 1960s and 1970s corduroy becomes fashionable again. It becomes a symbol of anti-establishment as a natural, less rigid material in neutral colours. The faded, worn look of the 1960s gives way to an explosion of colour and pattern in the 1970s. Corduroy jeans start to become a widespread staple of informal dressing still popular today.
Post- 1970s corduroy becomes unfashionable yet again, despite the launch of a 1982 Versace line of men’s clothing in corduroy. In the late 1990s stretch corduroy is introduced, creating a new, less bulky shape for the fashion-conscious.
It seems that, due to its practicality and comfort, corduroy will never die. However, in the UK, almost all of the companies that produce corduroy have closed down, and Brisbane Moss is now the largest remaining stockhouse of corduroys and moleskins in the UK.
Famous corduroy appreciators include: Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Picasso, Wes Anderson, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Frank Lloyd Wright and Woody Allen.