“If I’m not wearing at least one piece of corduroy, I don’t feel right. The repetition, the parallel lines, the thickness I’ve always thought, provided a kind of order and support. And because I’m not entirely the most orderly person, it helps. But even when I was little I loved corduroy. It made me feel grown up and sophisticated. I’m more of a pin wale person, but at times I love a nice wide wale.”
— Miles Rohan, the founder of the Corduroy Appreciation Club, explaining to Maximum Fun in 2006 why he’s such an unabashed corduroy fan. (Note his use of the term “wale,” the common terminology for the number of ridges per inch that a piece of corduroy has.) Rohan started the club to bring together his fellow cord-lovers, but it currently lies dormant, though Rohan promises the club will someday resurface. Last year he started an all-corduroy online store, which sells tufted ties and jackets, with all outfits designed by Rohan and cloth coming from the birthplace of modern corduroy, Northern England. Side note: Did you know that November 11 is Corduroy Day? I know what you’re mumbling at your desk—that’s friggin’ Veterans’ Day already! Yes, yes it is. But 11/11 is the date that looks the most like corduroy, hence the holiday you didn’t know about and will forget a soon as you finish this sentence.
Those are some tight wales on those corduroy pants. (Ben and Rachel Apps/Flickr)
The history of corduroy starts in an unexpected place—ancient Egypt
Corduroy didn’t naturally start out it its gracefully tufted form, no wales to define the fabric at first.
In a way, it was an evolution of fabric, when it comes down to it. And that evolution started in one place, the ancient Egyptian city of Al-Fustat. Located near the Nile river, the city became something of a ground zero of tough woven fabrics around the second century AD, with the city becoming closely associated with its blend of two types of cotton.
It also, at least for a while, played a significant historic role— in AD 641, it became the first Arab settlement in Egypt and served as the country’s capital for two separate periods totaling more than 300 years. But in the midst of the Crusades, the city’s top political official ordered the city burned in a desperate attempt to prevent its wealth from being stolen.
Since that time, Al-Fustat has lost its high level of influence in the region, as nearby Cairo, which was only founded in 969 AD, eventually usurped it and became Egypt’s capital. What was once Fustat is now a part of Old Cairo, with portions of its former past only occasionally showing themselves in museum exhibits based on archaeological work from decades past.
As it turned out, this lost city’s biggest legacy in the Western world was the predecessor fabric to corduroy, which became known as fustian, a clear riff on the Egyptian city’s name. It’s a heavy cloth that works well for things like pants, but unlike corduroy, it doesn’t feature any raised cords.
The 1870s textbook Textile Fabrics highlighted this lineage:
“Fustian, of which we still have two forms in velveteen and corduroy, was originally wove at Fustat n the Nile, with a warp of linen thread and a woof of thick cotton, so twilled and cut that it showed on one side a thick but low pile; and the we thus managed took its name of Fustian from that Egyptian city,” the Very Rev. Daniel Rock D.D. wrote.
The fabric at one point was closely associated with the Catholic Church, after a Cistercian abbot forced chasubles to be made out of basic linen or fustian, rather than more expensive materials. The fabric had a tendency to be both associated with high-minded pompousness (see the fact that Shakespeare turned fustian into an adjective of that nature) and working class living. And this was before corduroy even got any cords.
In the book The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, German philosopher Freidrich Engels noted how common fustian fabric was among the people he was writing about.
Corduroy, in couch form. Note the wide wales. (Brad Smith/Flickr)
“The men wear chiefly trousers of fustian or other heavy cotton goods, and jackets or coats of the same,” Engels recalled. “Fustian has become the proverbial costume of the working-men, who are called ‘fustian jackets,’ and call themselves so in contrast to the gentlemen who wear broadcloth, which latter words are used as characteristic for the middle class.”
The book doesn’t mention of corduroy, alas, but its modern-day form came from a similar working-class roots—and is widely believed to have gotten its corded magic in Manchester, England. At least that’s the claim the corduroy hawkers at Brooks Brothers make.
The number of physical locations that The Cords & Co, an all-corduroy fashion line that just launched late last month, is in the midst of rolling out. Speaking to The Evening Standard, founder Michael Söderlindh emphasized that he built an all-corduroy brand because the public is ready for such an overpowering sight. “There are lots of brands that have done their take on corduroy but there has never been a brand that has completely dedicated themselves to it,” Söderlindh said. “I am convinced that people are looking for a lasting alternative to denim. We want people all over the world to rediscover their love for corduroy.”
A full-page ad that was clearly paid for by the corduroy lobby. (Cincinnati Enquirer/Newspapers.com)
So where did the name “corduroy” come from, anyway? Well, not France
If I were to ask you to set a single decade as “peak corduroy,” which decade might you choose?
If you said the 1970s, ding ding ding we have an answer! A 1973 Marylin Stitz article in the Chicago Tribune really nails the interest in corduroy at the time:
When you think about transitional dresses, playtime outfits, and back to school togs, one fabric comes to mind. Corduroy.
Why? Because it’s luxurious and functional at the same time. It can look dressed up or dressed down. It holds its shape and is easy to care for. It adapts well to clothing for your entire family. It’s durable—and economical.
This is all well and good—corduroy is awesome, the ‘70s were a different time, I get it—but she then makes a mention that the name of the material is French in origin, standing for an anglicized “Cord du Roi.”
I’m sorry to correct your article 44 years later, Ms. Stitz, but that’s simply not true.
An 1891 edition of the Transactions of the Philological Society, a London-based group, puts the creation of corduroy at between 1776 and 1787, though I was able to find a 1774 mention of imported corduroys from Britain in the Newspapers.com archive. But unlike me, they didn’t have the internet at their disposal, so I’ll give them a break.
That said, the philological group, which studies the development of languages, does raise some incredibly valid points about the word, particularly where it likely didn’t come from—it took on the “corde du roi” meme head-on.
In reality, the society states, the French variation of the word was in fact referred to as “the king’s cord,” but in an already Anglicized way—kings-cordes, to be specific. Meanwhile, other elements of the English language didn’t make it to France.
“The word duroy as the name of a coarse woollen fabric, manufactured with verges and druggets in the West of England in [Robinson Crusoe author Daniel] Defoe's time, has evidently no connexion,” the society explains.
The society additionally discussed the possibility that the fabric was named after someone named Corderoy, only for that linguistic meaning to get morphed slightly.
We'll likely never know for sure because history is hazy on this point, but a 1772 mention of “corderoys,” in reference to the fabric being imported, supports the claim, for what it’s worth.
It’s either that, possibly, or that someone saw the cords on these pants and thought it fit perfect with “duroy.”
Here’s the thing about corduroy that I think shouldn’t be lost here: it may be the ultimate always-going-in-and-out-of-fashion fabric.
To prove the point, we’re going to play a game here: I’m going to quote from three trend pieces about how corduroy is coming back into style, and I’m going to ask you to guess the year for each. Here goes:
1. “It’s amazing. People are coming in like crazy and asking for corduroy slacks and sport coats—even with patches on the sleeves.”
2. “Its royal roots may be in question, but there’s no debating that corduroy has made a grand comeback.”
3. ”One of the ‘new faces’ on the fashion scene this season is corduroy. Although this cotton is a traditional classic, new treatments give it a lease on life.”
As a casual observer who is more of a jeans guy, I’d like to make an argument that might cause the more fashionable among you to shudder.
Corduroy is the fashion industry’s variation on the McRib—an inoffensive-enough product that retailers can go back to when they need a short-term hit, something that has just enough novelty to it that people will buy it because they’ve read somewhere that corduroy is making a comeback.
The fact is, as neat as corduroy is, it doesn’t generate a ton of die-hards. Folks who are really into the fabric, like Miles Rohan, are few and far between. But they’re like McRib fans. They’ll scope it out when it’s on the menu.
For the rest of us, we don’t really think in terms of wales all that often.