Oi Polloi

Corduroy - An Oi Polloi Champion

Published: Tue Oct 23 2018


That cord stuff we made with Lee launches in a couple of days, so for a bit of context, here’s approximately 1100 words trying to explain why corduroy is a true Oi Polloi champion…

Scholars suggest that the earliest sightings of anything remotely ‘cord-esque’ were over in the dusty streets of ancient Egypt back in 200AD. We weren’t around then, but from what we’ve heard, the fabric merchants in a city called Fustat had started making a luxurious, raised cotton fabric. Later known as ‘fustian’, this stuff was ideal for wearing whilst walking sideways and eating figs, and soon caught the eye of some Italian merchants thanks to its luscious, high-class nature.

By the Middle Ages, this stuff had made its way into the ornate wardrobes of various monarchs, noblemen and other regal types who were desperate to separate themselves from the muddy-faced, offal-scoffing masses. Henry VIII was a firm fan, as was sharp-dressed highwayman Dick Turpin – who apparently treated himself to a fancy fustian smock to wear on the day of his execution. Wealthy hunters were also fond of the stuff as it would dry quickly in dodgy weather (at least in comparison to other basic fabrics of the day).

Meanwhile, technology was forging forth, and geared-machinery was starting to take over from the basic spinning wheels operated by craggy-faced cottage dwellers. This is perhaps a pretty boring fact, but it’s a crucial one. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries meant that cotton fabric could be made faster than ever before, and mills started to pop up all around the North of England to cope with the demand.

Whilst the name was originally thought to have come from ‘corde du roi’, meaning ‘cloth of the king’ in French  it turns out this is a load of rubbish.

It was around this time that the term ‘corduroy’ seems to have been devised. Whilst the name was originally thought to have come from ‘corde du roi’, meaning ‘cloth of the king’ in French, it turns out this is a load of rubbish – and it actually comes from combining the word ‘cord’, and an outdated, coarse fabric known as ‘duroy’. To make this even more confusing, over on the continent, corduroy was known as ‘Manchester’ thanks to the city’s mastery of the fabric.

In a sort of ‘chicken and egg’ type scenario, the mill workers who were churning out this tough, hard-wearing corduroy stuff found that it was the perfect fabric to wear whilst making fabric — and it became the work-wear uniform of choice around the mill towns of the North West. Beyond just a useful garment, various radical members of the working class such as the Chartists also wore cord jackets as a symbol of their class allegiance.

This working class nature spread over the Atlantic too – and along with a newly fangled fabric known as denim, corduroy was rife across ranches, train yards and factories from South Carolina to Sacramento. See the classic documentary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for some prime examples of early cord across the pond.

This move out west also helped wave in a new era of cord – as new-fangled work-wear companies such as Lee took to making them in the same shape as their five pocket jeans, complete with copper rivets for a more robust flavour. Corduroy trucker jackets followed – ideal for those cold and lonesome nights on the prairie.

Whilst these cord-clad cowboys no doubt looked pretty sharp, the use of cord in the first slab of the 20th century was purely functional — people working outdoors needed something warm and tough, so they wore cord. But by the late 1950s, things flipped a bit.

Firstly, educated philosophy professor types started wearing cord sports jackets. These were smart enough to wear in wood-panelled lecture theatres – but still exuded a more humble quality fit for devout students of Satre.

On a similar tip, beat poets and folk singers looking for rootsy authenticity dressed like bedraggled characters from John Steinbeck novels. Paul Newman was also an early adopter.

All of this leads us to the 1960s, when the influx of mass culture in the form of attainable mediums like television, film and music blasted the floodgates wide open to a new world of colour, sound and… er… fancy waled cotton fabric.

This might sound a bit daft, but with everyone from Mick Jagger to Western gun-slingers decked-out in their finest corduroy, it only made sense that the youth of the 60s was sent in search of ridged velvet. Obviously denim was probably a bit more prevalent, but cord wasn’t too far behind – especially in the more free-thinking corners.

Cut to the North West of England in the late 70s, and corduroy was rife – as Oi Polloi cord obsessive Nigel explains. 

“On TV you’d see Bodie and Doyle in the Professionals wearing bomber jackets and straight legged cords – driving around in a Capri with Kevin Keegan haircuts. And then a very early memory for me as a kid was seeing these Perry Boys wearing a white Fred Perry t-shirt, a pale blue Slazenger jumper and some burgundy jumbo cords.”

By the early 80s, this uniform had morphed into a more extreme, rustic variation as clothing-based top trumps reached fever pitch.

It was one-upmanship, it was doing something that nobody understood – it was taking things further so that people wouldn’t get it.

“You’d have a deerstalker, some dark brown semi-flared cords, some adidas Korsika and maybe a tweed jacket and a cord shirt — it was unbranded, it wasn’t sports — it was this country gent thing. A lot of the London crews would come up and be wearing full Fila or Sergio Tacchini tracksuits, but everyone in Manchester was wearing semi-flared cords and deerstalkers. We’d already done the tracksuit thing.

It was one-upmanship, it was doing something that nobody understood – it was taking things further so that people wouldn’t get it.”

But why choose cord when there were thousands of other obscure fabrics out there? Nigel reckons it might have been down to the full spectrum of colours you could buy ‘em in.

“Jeans were just blue – but with cords you’d have sky blue, baby blue, bottle green, dark brown, mid brown, beige, red, orange, mustard… you couldn’t have yellow jeans – but yellow cords? No problem. They were luxurious too, and even when we first started wearing them in the 70s, they already felt like a classic – they were always there. But why they were there? I’m not quite sure.”

Admittedly not the most conclusive answer ever – but maybe that’s the thing with this stuff. It’s pretty hard to put down in words why a fairly humble ridged fabric can evoke such strong feelings in people. Yep, they come in a lot of colours, there’s plenty of history and loads of slick characters have worn ‘em, but really that’s all by-the-by — put on a pair of chunky jumbo cords and you’ll know for yourself what all the fuss is about.

The Lee Oi Polloi cord stuff launches at 10:00 on Thursday the 25th of October (BST). See it here.