Over the last half-century, the cloth we call corduroy has undergone quite a few incarnations. Many of us have a nostalgic feeling for the fabric, looking to it as a preppy fall mainstay, while others cannot forget the large-lapeled corduroy suits of the 1970s. Such is the history of corduroy though. What started as a princely fabric has endured to become one of the most beloved materials worn today. And though it may seem to be a 20th century fashion phenomenon, its history actually spans over two thousand years.
Corduroy’s earliest ancestor was a cotton weave known as “fustian” which was developed in the Egyptian city of Fustat in 200 BC. It was locally popular for centuries, but it soared during the Medieval period when Italian merchants introduced the fabric to nobles throughout Western Europe. The aristocracy clamored for its warmth in the days before heating, including most notably, England’s King Henry VIII.
What started as a princely fabric has endured to become one of the most beloved materials worn today.
It was 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 has been debunked. Now it is believed that the term is a compound of the word “cord,” referring to its tufted, row-like pattern (or wales), and “duroy” which was a course woolen fabric used in England. What we now recognize as corduroy emerged in the late 18th century in Manchester, England as factory wear during the Industrial Revolution. It would remain a working class fabric for the next hundred years, only to be discovered in the 1960s by college students and beatniks alike who wore it as an alternative to their chinos and denim jeans. By the late 1970s to 1980s, the popularity of corduroy pants and even shorts grew among preps and surfers—only to be re-appropriated by flannel-clad rockers during the grunge era of the 1990s.