It’ll be a wale of a good time.
A comfortable cloth with a hard-wearing heritage, corduroy is the ideal sartorial crossroads where sophistication meets toughness and in a surprisingly soft package. Learn more about the rugged fabric you’ll want to make sure you’re wearing plenty of during the cooler months ahead.
Origins of Corduroy
While corduroy also shares its name with a sartorially challenged bear searching for his lost button, the name of the fabric certainly predates Don Freeman’s 1968 picture book.
Legend purported by menswear titans like Sir Hardy Amies and Alan Flusser stated that the name originated as an Anglicization of the French corde du roi, or “cord of the king,” in reference to its use as royal hunting livery. However, more recent explorations determined that this was a false etymology and that the term evolved from an 18th century description of duroy, a coarse fabric used in English country clothing. As it was specifically the Manchester area that saw the rise of this fabric, some regions continue to refer to corduroy as “Manchester cloth.”
Whether it was English countrymen, French hunters, or another group altogether that pioneered this durable yet attractive fabric, corduroy had been established across Europe and the United States by the 20th century. Over the decades that followed, corduroy followed the trends that normalized sportswear, bringing this corded cloth in from the cold as it became a shorthand for varying models of masculinity, whether worn by hunters warming their hands by the fire or Ivy professors with chalk-stained elbows pouring a post-recitation dram.
Corduroy’s unique texture consists of raised rows of velveteen cotton, each in an equal width created by a process known as “tufting” that weaves the cotton into these wales.
Wait, tufting? Wales? Let’s step back a bit.
Tufting is a process that weaves yarn through a fabric base to form a pile that can be adapted for anything from clothing to rugs. Though it dates back centuries, the tufting process has been modernized with the development of tufting guns, which have also been embraced by DIYers.
The type of tufting specific to corduroy draws the piled fabric into lengths of ridged cord, known as a wale and reportedly derived from the Anglo-Saxon term for the ridge made in a plowed field.
Corduroy is then defined by its wale count, referring to the number of these ridges that can fit within one inch, ranging from less than two to more than 20. A lower wale count suggests a wider cord; to borrow an example inspired by corduroy’s origins among hunters, this echoes how a 12-gauge shotgun shell is wider than a 20-gauge.
- Narrow-waled corduroy, also known as “pincord,” “pinwale,” or “needlecord,” often measures 16-wale
- Medium or standard-wale corduroy is typically 11-wale
- Wide-wale corduroy, also known as “elephant cord”, is often 4-wale or 5-wale, though more extreme variations like 1.5-wale are often produced
How to Wear
Per its sportswear origins, corduroy has most traditionally been made in earthier colors like shades of brown, tan, and olive, though the fabric’s well-established popularity outside the realms of hunting has led to fashion-forward outfitters crafting corded wear in vibrant shades of burgundy, orange, and violet, in addition to more conservative tones like navy blue and gray.
Corduroy pants typically range between trousers and more casual jeans, though both styles—like jeans—tend to become more comfortable for their wearers the more they’re broken in. Based on how the fabric falls, wider-waled corduroy is often reserved for dressier pants with needlecord better suited for jeans.
Looking to the screen for cinematic examples, corduroy provided the bottom half for the action-ready looks sported by Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 and Daniel Craig during the final act of Skyfall; John McClane’s pleated cords echoed dress pants like the J. Crew Single-Pleat 10-Wale Corduroy Pant while Craig’s 007 opted for more dressed-down corduroy jeans like the Slim-Fit Flex Cord, also from J. Crew, or the Buck Mason Stretch Cord Ford Standard Jean.
Corduroy’s chameleon-like dressiness also pertains to jackets, as both sports coats and casual jackets can be suitable applications for corduroy.
Matthew McConaughy in True Detective Season 1
A corduroy sport jacket could be one of the most versatile pieces you own, with the ability to be:
- Paired with a dress shirt and tie a la Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Matthew McConaughey across the first season of True Detective
- Layered over a broken-in work shirt or flannel like Ben Affleck in Argo and Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac
- Providing a rakish addition to a simple black T-shirt and jeans like David Duchovny’s self-destructive author in Californication
As proven by jeans, a doctrine you can apply to corduroy is: if it can be made in denim, it can also be made in corduroy. (The reverse does not apply, as Justin Timberlake illustrated at the 2001 AMAs.)
With that in mind, the world of casual corduroy jackets opens up to chore jackets, truckers, shackets, and more. Like their denim cousins, these can be further insulated by piled sherpa lining and collars like these Huckberry and Levi’s jackets.
Casual corduroy jackets suggest a rugged comfort with the outdoors, whether it’s the dark olive chore coat worn by Chief Hopper on Stranger Things or the blood-hued burgundy blouson that Jack Nicholson wore for the infamous “here’s Johnny!” rampage in The Shining.
I like wearing casual corduroy jackets with jeans, allowing me to blend the compatible philosophy of a trucker jacket and jeans without wading into tricky double-denim territory.
Once you’ve worked your way up through corduroy jackets and trousers, you may be ready to graduate to the full corduroy suit. Though it’s never been an essential in a men’s wardrobe (e.g., you probably shouldn’t buy one unless you already have a gray or navy suit!), dressing neck to ankle in matching, tailored corduroy can be a comfortable alternative—where comfortable alternatives would be appropriate—to the traditional worsted.
Appointed with the right shirt, it could bring some elegance to date night; paired with an Ivy-inspired button-down shirt and tie, it could suggest a hit-the-pavement kind of profession like Robert Redford’s portrayal of intrepid investigative reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men.
Following the visibility of Daniel Craig’s corded Massimo Alba “sloop suit” worn for an action sequence in his James Bond swan song, No Time to Die, I predict we may see a renaissance in corduroy suits. If nothing else, owning a corduroy suit also automatically arms your closet with the jacket and trousers that can be deployed as separates.
Beyond jackets and trousers, designers have extended corduroy to shirts, caps, and even shoes! A corduroy shirt is one of the coziest pieces you can own, whether it’s a needlecord shirt to be tucked in with trousers or jeans or a wider-waled overshirt to be layered over your favorite T.
Even if there’s no corduroy in the rest of your outfit, it can also make a great accent whether on the collar of your Storm Rider-style jacket or literally topping off your look via a plain baseball cap like these options from Amazon, Banana Republic, and Patagonia.
How do you like to wear corduroy?