Corduroy chimes with the conker-brown and mustard shades, deep-lapel collars and wide, high-waisted trousers of the 1970s. The decade’s designers likely appreciated corduroy for its durability as well as its appearance, and it was buoyed by the sartorial choices of Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot. But its original status as an anti-establishment badge of cool has almost been forgotten since. In fact, for much of the 19th century, corduroy was a symbol both of working-class identity and political radicalism.
To understand these roots, it's worth going further back in time to explore the origins of corduroy. Around 200BC, the Egyptian city of Fustat invented and gave its name to fustian, a heavy cloth with a raised, sheared nap that was similar to velvet or moleskin. 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 – it may have been his padded silhouette that Shakespeare had in mind when he began using the word fustian as a synonym for pompousness (“Discourse fustian with one's own shadow,” Cassio scolds Iago in Othello).
At this point, fustian had not yet acquired the distinctive ridges that would transform it into corduroy. These were developed by British textile manufacturers as fustian moved down the social scale in the 18th century, and it was soon favoured by schoolmasters and academics. Perhaps the ridges known as wales – from the Old English word walu, which means weal or stripe – came about as a means of strengthening the fabric and extending its lifespan.
This would certainly explain its popularity as a material for working men's clothing after the Industrial Revolution. In 1844, the German philosopher Friedrich Engels was still referring to it by its old name, noting the ubiquitousness of fustian garb among labourers while he was researching The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels’ father owned a textile factory in Manchester at the height of the Chartist movement, which sought political representation for the workers. For them, the historian Paul Pickering has written, the wearing of fustian was a statement of class without words.
The transition from fustian to corduroy happened gradually. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word corduroy was in 1774. There is no real consensus on its origins, but the idea that it was derived from the French “corde du roi” (king's cords) has been discredited. Some say it's a combination of cord and duroy, a coarse woollen cloth; others think it may have been given a French-sounding name by British merchants in an effort to capitalise on the vogue for French textiles. Whatever the truth, its title didn't translate well in continental Europe, where it is still often known as “Manchester” in tribute to the Lancashire mills where it was first made.
The wales that now define the look of corduroy were created by weaving layers of threads into a base fabric, followed by various glueing, cutting and brushing treatments. Wales are measured in ridges per inch; the higher the wale, the finer the cord, with pincord being considered the finest and elephant cord the thickest.
Words by Amy Bradford.
Campaign photographs by Jo Metson Scott.