The curse bestowed on corduroy since the early 19th century is that it conjures up dusty libraries and dustier professors, with fraying elbow patches and spectacles Sellotaped at the temples. Resigned to farmers’ country attire, impoverished artists and the working class, it developed a reputation as a ‘poor man’s velvet’, but a surge in popularity in the 1970s meant corduroy wove its way back into the public’s consciousness as a versatile, durable fabric with a tactile finish. This year, the curse has officially broken, and collections are bursting at the seams with oversized wales and pin-cord patches, a nostalgic homage to the era’s new-wave creativity.
In Italian, corduroy translates as velluto a coste, or ‘velvet with a rib’. Woven in the same way as velvet, corduroy’s distinguishing feature is the striped effect formed by tufted cords, or ‘wales’. The size of the wale affects the width of the cords, and refers to the number of ridges per inch: the lower the wale, the thicker the cords. “Thanks to its three-dimensional look, corduroy is visually ‘rich’,” Marco Marini, CEO of Italian corduroy specialist Duca Visconti, tells The Rake. “It is elegant but at the same time, it’s soft, sporty, warm and cosy.” Like velvet, it has a soft, touchable pile and a visible nap that makes its appeal tangible as well as visual.
Despite its working-class associations, the prevailing misconception that the name is derived from ‘corde du roi’ is a common one; French manufacturers exploited this as a marketing tool in the early 19th century, suggesting the fabric was named for being the ‘King’s cords’, but there is no etymological evidence to support the idea. In all likelihood, the textile takes its name from duroy, a coarse woollen cloth made in England and used predominantly for menswear in the 18th century. Much like tweed, corduroy’s identity became to England what tartan is to Scotland; its influence reached far and wide, and became known as Manchester or Bedford cloth throughout Europe. In the 1900s, corduroy was often used for workwear, and was even standard issue militarywear - particularly in the trouser department - in the US and Spanish Armies.