Often considered the poor man’s substitute for velvet, corduroy is actually a very wonderful fabric that is made from cotton which is woven to lie parallel to each other, so it forms individual cords that almost appear to be separate and attached.Soft and yet durable, it’s a variation of velvet that’s easy to maintain and clean and still keeps its shape relatively well. Made from cotton or a cotton blend, it’s very popular for hunting apparel, trousers, jackets, suits and other cool-weather attire due to its warmth. Today’s guide is all about this wonderful material and how you can use it in men’s apparel.
The History of Corduroy
In order to understand the history of corduroy, you must first understand its parent: Fustian. It is an umbrella term for thick cotton fabrics including moleskins and corduroys.
It was first woven in Norwich, England during the reign of Edward VI, and used for jackets in the 15 century. Originally dating back as far as 200 AD, it was initially woven in Fustat, a small city near Cairo, in Egypt. At the time, Fustat was a bustling marketplace and one that was known for its use of cotton and later its exportation of cotton throughout much of Europe.
Fustian as Outdoor Apparel in the 19th Century
It was during the 18th century that London tailors began to adapt the textile as an option for outdoor apparel in the cooler climate. The goal was to create the perfect form of fustian that would dry quickly from the rain and provide warmth in the winter months. For hunters and gatherers, the new fabric was ideal as it was comfortable, provided protection from the elements, and offered them an easy, maintenance-free alternative to their previous clothing.
How Corduroy Got Its Name
In the past, silk used to be rather expensive and velvet was only made of silk, yet Corduroy is generally woven from cotton.
Cour du Roi
Some claim the origins of ‘Corduroy’ come from the French ‘Cour du Roi’ meaning ‘Court of the king’.
Of course, the king wore clothes made out of fine silk fabrics and so did the aristocrats at court. However, the King’s servants did not get silk but rather less expensive cotton hunting outfits. Corduroy is also woven like velvet, except the pile picks are bound by the warp, which creates the straight lines.
These are probably some of the reasons corduroy is also referred to as the velvet of the poor.
Corde du Roi
Some also claim the name was derived from the French “Corde du Roi” which means as much as ‘Cloth of the King’. Considering that cotton was not the fabric of kings, it seems less likely that this was in fact the origin of Corduroy.
Others think the word was derived from the English word cord and duroy was an adaptation of durable. Of course we will never know at what point in time Fustian was renamed Corduroy, but the first explanation seems more plausible.
Corduroy in the 20th Century
As formal wear took off throughout much of Victorian England, corduroy went from being the country gent’s textile of choice to the working-class fabric for uniforms.
During the beginning of the 20th century, it became popular among Parisian intellectuals for trousers and jackets.
By the 1930s it was also utilized for Alpine hiking clothing and by the 1960s The Beatles popularized it when they wore Corduroy suits.
The Beatles Saved The Corduroy Industry
Up until then, most corduroys were worn by students and school-boys, workers, and farmers, and as such the industry was in a constant decline. The Beatles made corduroy fashionable again. In 1965, the President of the Board of Trade even claimed that The Beatles “saved the British corduroy industry”.
In the U.S. corduroy became popular with Ivy League students in Princeton and Dartmouth in 1957, and it went on to become an Ivy Style wardrobe staple.
Throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties Corduroy was still present but it had its ups and downs.
Today, corduroy suits or blazers are often associated with professors, who pair it with tweed, or people who are into the British Country Gentleman Style. Since velvet is almost exclusively made of cotton or cotton blends and not silk anymore, corduroy can no longer be considered to be inferior to velvet and so it is not a surprise to see that men sometimes prefer if over velvet. Corduroy has no doubt set itself apart as its own,unique textile for the modern gentleman.
What Corduroy Items Should You Buy? Pants, Suits and Maybe More
What’s unique about corduroy is that it tends to trend and go in and out of style in short bursts. Somehow, it never dies though, and just remains comatose for a brief time before re-emerging.
While corduroy upholstery on furniture was popular, it’s rare to find a sofa these days that’s not pre-owned in someone’s basement or a grandparent’s living room and covered with plastic. However, classic staples such as hunting jackets remain popular decade after decade because they keep you warm and last.
If your goal is to build a classic and timeless wardrobe, Corduroy an excellent addition for pants, jackets, vests and suits. A pair of pants should be a part of every modern gentleman’s fall-winter wardrobe, with the suit being the next upgrade once you have your basic suit needs covered. If you are into the outdoors, you definitely want to look into hunting jackets.
Because of its stiffness, corduroy works better off the rack than other garments; however, if you want the proper fit, there is no way around bespoke.
The most versatile colors include brown, tan, olive, khaki, sand, black and navy. However, you can also find more vibrant colors such as red, burgundy mustard yellow, and bright green. Our advice is to purchase only colors you are comfortable wearing, disregarding the current fashion trends.
One of the latest trends is pigment-dyed corduroy in various colors that are both vibrant and dull. The dye is applied to the surface of the textile prior to it being cut and sewn. Over time, pigment-dyed color will fade, especially when washed, and eventually even the most vibrant of colors will appear vintage and soft.
If you do purchase vibrant corduroy clothing, it’s wise to dry-clean only and not wash it at home. If you have a suit, clean both items at the same time, because otherwise your pants may not look like your jacket.
Corduroy Details & Characteristic
Due to its outdoor heritage, corduroy jackets are usually on the casual side featuring center vents, patch pockets, and throat latches … but of course, you can also find them with side vents and flap pockets. While velvet is often used for smoking jackets and alternative dinner jackets, corduroy is usually used for blazers, suits, trousers and vests.
Because of its tight weave, it is rather warm as long as it remains dry. At the same time, it doesn’t drape as beautifully as heavy wool fabrics. So if you are prone to overheating, corduroy is probably not the best choice for you.
The Corduroy Wale
Corduroy is generally measured by what’s referred to as the ‘Wale’ of the cord, which is the number of ridges found in the item per inch. The term comes from the actual name of those ribs or cords that are called ‘Wales.’ The lower the wale number, the thicker the wales will be. The wale count is a rather large range and unlike other grades that often offer just a handful of choices, corduroy comes in everything from 1.5 all the way up to 21. However, in most cases the most desirable wale number is somewhere between 10 and 12.
Ideally, wider wale counts should be reserved for items below the waist, whereas a finer wale number can be chosen for items such as jackets and suits. Ultimately of course you pick what you like.
Genoa Back vs. Tabby Back
The backside of corduroy can either look and feel similar to the front with a twill back (Genoa Back) or it can have a plain back, which is known as Tabby Back. Higher quality corduroys are tightly woven and usually feature a Genoa Back although there are generally exceptions to the rule.
Corduroy Blazers & Sport Coats
Let’s say you buy a corduroy suit: you can also wear them them as separates with just the jackets or pants. In fact, you will greatly increase the opportunities of wearing corduroy when you wear either a jacket or pants. If you are still in the early days of building a wardrobe, it is probably wiser to invest in a corduroy jacket rather than a full suit because you can combine it more easily.
Vintage Corduroy can come in unusual colors such as gunmetal in very fine or wide wale cord. The jackets from the 50s and 60s can easily be worn today, while the styles from the 70s and 80s look quite dated. Therefore, stick with timeless shapes unless you are going to a Halloween party.
Corduroy is one of those textiles that one tends to love or hate. For many, this love/hate relationship can be item specific.
Some men may love the idea of a corduroy jacket but despise the thought of wearing corduroy pants.
For others, corduroy is a simple yes or no to all items. In any case, corduroy has its stigma as a somewhat dated fabric and yet it is a great addition to any modern gentleman’s winter wardrobe, at least in doses. What are your thoughts on corduroy? Do you have an appreciation and respect for it?
This guide was written by Sven Raphael Schneider & J.A. Shapira