The history of Corduroy

An alluringly dishevelled fabric, made smart by adept designers such as Lorenzo Cifonelli, corduroy has a fascinating history, even if the debate of how the term was coined still rages on.

Matt Damon and Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999 (Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (418284b)

The origins of the cotton fabric predates its current term by a considerable stretch. The mystique of how and when it was coined corduroy remain dubious and debatable, although there are a few worthy theories of how it got its name to cling onto. Corduroy’s roots are in the ancient Egyptian city of Al-Fustat. Located near the Nile river, the city became a hub for tough woven fabrics. Cairo, founded much later in 969 AD swallowed up the city to become Egypt’s capital. The legacy of the lost city lives on though, through fustian, a heavy cloth which was woven with a warp of linen thread and woof of thick cotton, so twilled and cut that it showed on one side a thick but low pile.

The fabric at one point was closely associated with the Catholic Church, after a Cistercian abbot forced chasubles — the outer vestments worn by priests — to be made out of basic linen or fustian, rather than more expensive materials. It was brought to Europe in medieval times by Italian and Spanish merchants, where it was used to line gowns and doublets for warmth. Henry VIII owned many fustian garments yet according to German philosopher Frederick Engels, the fabric was also the proverbial costume for working men. And that’s exactly the echelons we first start to associate modern-day corduroy, in the factories and mills of 19th century Manchester. 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.

Contributor

Freddie Anderson

Published

August 2021

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