Yesterday was Remembrance Day. But it was news to me to discover, thanks to Fashion Incubator’s tip-off, that 11/11 has also been declared Corduroy Day. It’s all to do with the vague resemblance of that date (11/11) to the ridges of said fabric.
Corduroy appears to be the Marmite of materials, with people either loving or hating it. I love it – what could be more redolent of cosy comfort on a cold British winter’s day than corduroy? However, I’m big enough to acknowledge that not everyone feels the same. When I was at university in the mid-1980s, I noted that a particular kind of derision was reserved solely for those unfortunate male students who resorted to wearing dark brown corduroy trousers. This was probably an understandable reaction to the 1970s, when it had been virtually enshrined in statute that the nation be covered in brown, beige or – at a pinch – oatmeal corduroy. Seventy years earlier, in a book called Corduroy Breeches, American Wilfrid Hardy Callcott recounted how he’d received a pair of corduroy knickerbockers as a young boy and detested them. The book runs to some 148 pages so I’m guessing his animosity ran pretty deep. On the other side of the fence, the Corduroy Appreciation Club founded by New Yorker Miles Rohan in 2005, celebrates all things corduroy; members meet on dates resembling corduroy (11th January: 11/1 and 11th November: 11/11) and must wear at least two items of corduroy to each meeting. I believe that Miles is the happy man responsible for Corduroy Day.
The SOED defines corduroy as a late 18th century word meaning ‘a coarse cotton velvet with thick ribbing’. If you, like me, thought it had French origins ( ‘corde du roi’), that looks like being a fine example of folk etymology; according to the esteemed oracle (OK, it’s Wikipedia, but I’m feeling lucky) there’s no such phrase in French and the word, like the cloth, appears to be of English origin. The clever dictionary folk of Oxford claim that the word is formed from ‘cord’ (in the sense of string or rope) plus ‘duroy’, duroy being a kind of coarse, lightweight worsted (wool) cloth formerly made in western England (in my local towns of Chippenham, Melksham and Devizes, to name but a few) and used to make men’s clothes. The name harks back to the early 17th century, though its origins are shrouded in mystery. I’ve flagged up this sadly dark area of textile etymology to Michael Quinion over at World Wide Words and will let you know if he gets back to me with any illumination. What seems more certain is that corduroy was at one time a cotton textile produced in Manchester; in continental Europe, corduroy is still referred to as ‘Manchester’ (another Wikipedia fact, so please don’t treat it as Gospel until Saint Michael of Quinion has approved it). Manchester cloth was originally worn by poorer workers in the same way as fustian; however it was of high quality, according to this authority, with a good dense pile.
By the late 18th century, the term ‘corduroys’ was being used to describe a pair of corduroy trousers; I’d like to think that the squirely classes (still evident on the streets of Bath today, sporting their garish-corduroy-and-dun-Barbour winter plumage) were calling their breeches this in Jane Austen’s day. But I suspect ‘corduroys’ were then for the much humbler sort. Here’s a picture from the V&A archives of a man in working clothes (including cord trousers) seated in doorway, c.1845. And a work of 1854, The Lower Orders (published in Noctes Ambrosianae), casts aspersions on those wearing:
…corduroy breeks and linsey-woollen petticoats… Poor, lonely, humble people, who live in shielings [shacks], and huts, and cottages, and farm-houses…
So, it appears to have been very much a working man’s fabric, able to keep a person warm when out in the cold. The humility of corduroy is underscored again by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
There was a cold night smell in the chapel. But it was a holy smell. It was not the smell of the old peasants who knelt at the back of the chapel at Sunday mass. That was a smell of air and rain and turf and corduroy.
An older term for corduroy was ‘wale’. The original Old English word was ‘walu’: from Low German ‘wale’ = weal, a ridge raised on the flesh by the blow of a rod, and from the Old Norse ‘ vala’ = knuckle. By the late Old English period it was being applied to a ridge of earth or stone, and it turns up in Middle English to describe the broad thick timbers forming the outer sides of a ship; it survives today in the nautical ‘gunwale’. Come the late 16th century ‘wale’ was being used to describe a ridge or raised line of threads in a woven fabric, and to name, by extension, the fabric with such lines.
These days, ‘wale’ is used to refer to the number of ridges per inch in corduroy: the thicker the wale, the lower the number and the chunkier the cloth, so 4-wale is much thicker than 11-wale, for example. Wide wale is commonly used for trousers, while elephant cord, the very thickest of wales, can be used for upholstery. Fine wale (needlecord, pin-cord or pin-wale) is suitable for for shirts and children’s clothes. Incidentally, the club motto of the Corduroy Appreciation Club is ‘Hail the Wale’.
We also have the late 18th century word ‘corduroy’ (or ‘corduroy road’) to describe a rudimentary thoroughfare made from logs, so named because of its resemblance to the fabric. In The Dominion of Canada (published by L. Stebbins of Toronto in 1868) Henry Youle Hind apologised for their roughness:
Where the foundation is a morass the corduroy is a ready and efficient mode of constructing a road…though most disagreeable to the traveler, and perhaps destructive of the vehicle, it is often impossible for the scattered settlers to do more.
Corduroy fabric can be just as difficult to work as the corduroy road must have been to travel. But if you want to take corduroy beyond knee patches, I’d recommend looking at the Gee’s Bend quilters who often used unyielding scraps of corduroy and denim with great deftness.
If anyone wants to meet for a British Corduroy Appreciation Party on Friday 11th November 2011 (11/11/11!) do leave a comment and I’ll see what can be arranged. That leaves plenty of time to plan a suitable corduroy creation.