From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Corduroy was broadcast on the 19th February 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
The idea of wearing corduroy as a symbol of rebellion seems today somewhat perplexing. But that’s precisely how it was perceived when it gained widespread popularity in the late 1950s. It wasn’t dangerous or sexy like James Dean in a pair of jeans but was aimed more at intellectuals who wanted to fight the conformity of conservative clothing and by extension, conservative thinking. Wearing it was shorthand for individual expression, making it popular with literary and media types. By the 1970s, it was almost a cliché, evoking the university professor coaxing Jungian thoughts from his students.
Corduroy emerged in the 19th century as a variation of fustian fabric, a densely woven cloth that had a short nap, giving rise to moleskin and velvet as well as corduroy. The name corduroy hints at French origins – corde du roi, or king’s rope – but there’s no evidence for that. There had been, however, a liking in France for fringed fabrics and velvet since the fifteenth century. But it was in Manchester, the cotton manufacturing capital of industrial Britain, that corduroy as we know it first appeared. With its ridges of soft, tufted cotton woven onto a cheaper base cloth, it combined softness and warmth with strength, making it comfortable to wear and popular with farmers and factory workers alike. It even had a kind of utilitarian chic when used by the Women’s Land Army in the First World War, which saw women working in agriculture across Britain, filling the gap left by farm hands enlisted to fight abroad. The organisation was revived in the Second World War and corduroy was used for the Land Girls’ informal uniform of practical breeches and dungarees. This at least hints to its future as something with an edge of rebellion to it – after all, women working during wartime was a catalyst for female emancipation. By the 1950s, using corduroy reflected a desire for leisure clothes different from those worn at work. With its rising popularity came a number of variants, from the fine needlecord that was almost as dense as velvet to the thick elephant or jumbo cord of the 1970s, its wide ridges fluffed up by steam to add to the softness. The fabric became popular in furnishing, too, although for upholstery rather than curtaining, and seemed tailor-made for the new nebulous style of chairs and sofas that used foam rather than conventional timber framing. It even found its way into haute couture, with Dior designing a silk-blend corduroy coat in the 1960s, and funky London department store Biba selling trouser suits in bright orange or mustard corduroy. Corduroy was youthful and fun. And yet it retains an agricultural edge, a sturdy alternative to tweed, and is still worn by a certain type of country gentleman who thinks raspberry red and bright yellow is an excellent colour for trousers. It continues to fall in and out of fashion but is, today, rather sadly, about as rebellious as a teddy bear.