The Cloth of Kings
A history of corduroy
For better or worse, corduroy tends to evoke very specific imagery. Perhaps you recall that aloof professor traipsing across campus with a stack of books in the crook of his arm, or maybe you think of Woody Allen, pensively looking for love on the streets of Manhattan in his corduroy jacket. However you come to regard this fabric, it tends to elicit disparate reactions. Some dismiss it outright, maybe as a result of having to wear garishly colored corduroy overalls as children, while those who love the fabric attest to its soft, nostalgic familiarity. In order to uncover the origin of this polarizing fabric we must go back in time, some 2,000 years to the beginning.
Corduroy’s earliest ancestor was a cotton weave known as “fustian” which was developed in the ancient Egyptian city of Fustat in 200 BC. It was locally popular for centuries but its reputation soared during the medieval period, when Italian merchants first introduced the fabric to fussy nobles throughout Europe. The aristocracy clamored for the durable fabric; even foul-tempered King Henry VIII of England found time between brides to develop his own appreciation for fustian.
It was widely believed that the term corduroy came from a 17th century English corruption of the French “corde du roi” or “cloth of the king,” though that theory is widely panned. (Now, it is believed that the term is a compound of the word “cord,” referring to its tufted, row-like pattern, and “duroy” which was a course woolen fabric used in England.) What we have come to recognize as corduroy emerged in the late 18th century in Manchester, England where the onset of the Industrial Revolution provided machinery and manpower to facilitate its popularity. Once a luxurious indulgence for fastidious royals, corduroy became the go-to fabric for the working class, who needed durable, warm clothing on the factory floors and in the fields. During class-conscious Victorian times, corduroy was dubbed, “the poor man’s velvet.” As a result, corduroy fell out of favor until the middle of the 20th century when it was repurposed by college students and hippies in the 1960’s counter culture movement.
Since then, corduroy has experienced surges of popularity without truly disappearing (which is great news, sparing the exception of the corduroy suits of the 1970s). The material began to compete with denim as a popular fabric for jeans and jackets and became a mainstay amongst the preppy set in the 1980s. No doubt there are some of you who donned corduroy shorts in the fashion-doldrums of that decade. However, by the 1990’s corduroy became a staple fabric that paired easily with the flannel shirts that defined the grunge movement, giving the preps a true run for their money.
After suffering centuries of identity crises, corduroy has finally earned the respect it deserves. What started as a princely fabric, reserved for affluent royals and their hangers-on, has endured to become one of the more popular fabrics used today. Don’t believe us? Well, there’s always Corduroy Appreciation Day, November 11th to convince you. (Yes, it’s a real holiday.)
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