Corduroy: The King of Wales

Long associated with college campuses, the English countryside, and teddy bears in overalls, corduroy is a quintessential autumn fabric. Normally made of cotton, corduroy has ridges, or wales, running vertically down the cloth giving it great textural interest.

By popular account, the fabric’s origin is traced to the servants’ livery of the king of France called corde du roi, the cloth of the king. Some etymologists doubt this story, but regardless of its true roots, by the 19th century corduroy had become a firmly English fabric, and not one for the royal court.

Corduroy was instead worn by poor children and the lower class. Charles Dickens wrote of a schoolroom having the odor of “mildewed corduroys” in David Copperfield. Fabian Sidney Webb wrote, “corduroy has been relegated to the use of navvies and tramps.” It was poor man’s velvet, useful because it was durable and insulating.

Corduroy’s reputation rallied at the turn of the century, and was adopted by the horsey set as a hard-wearing country cloth. It won the approval of both Apparel Arts and the Duke of Windsor, which is one Cary Grant away from an interbellum menswear hat trick. By the Second World War, corduroy was a fashion staple of agrarians and academics both. 

There have been some dark moments since. Every thrift shop has corduroy suits that look like something Ron Burgundy would be proud to wear. The Wes Anderson connection looms. But the misuse and abuse of corduroy should not obscure its charms. 

Corduroy is most frequently employed as a trouser cloth. Wide, thick wales give an informal, country look with a tweed coat or a Shetland sweater. Sand is the most common color, but don’t shun cords in bolder colors like red, maize, moss, or royal. 

Thinner wales, usually called pinwale, lessen corduroy’s coarseness and dress up the fabric. Pinwale cord allows for a trimmer cut, and can be soft enough for jeans-cut cords or even pinwale cord shirts. Both provide an excellent fall alternative to denim or broadcloth. 

Like its tonier cousin velvet, corduroy is also used as a collar cloth on outerwear. Not only does corduroy offer visual and textural contrast, but the wales on a collar provide readymade courses to pull water away from the body, which is why Mackintosh raincoats often have this feature. 

Although International Corduroy Appreciation Day may never come again, you need no more excuse than cold weather to wear your favorite corduroy pieces.

Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in October 2014.

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