Corduroy for Boys Clothing

Figure 1.--Corduroy shorts in the 1950s and 60s were worn by French boys for play, school, and scouts. This as since declined as denim became increasingly popular with boys.

Corduroy is a distinctively recognizable ribbed fabric. Corduroy is often reported to be a French fabric, literally "fabric of the king". This appears to be an erroneous report. Corduroy instead appears to be a late-18th century English invention and initially worn by people of humble circumstances. Cotton corduroy was widely used by workers in the 19th century and became a popular children's fabric by the early 20th century because of its warmth and durability. American boys commonly wore cord knickers to school in the fall and winter. British and French boys more commonly cord shorts. Some schools adopted school uniforms. The German Wandervogel often wore cord shorts as French Scouts did later. Corduroy was eclipsed by denim after World War II, but is still popular for children's clothing.

Corduroy Fabric

Corduroy is a fabric in which a ribbed effect is produced on one side by regular "rows" or "cords" of pile similar to the pile on velvet. Corduroy is primarily made from cotton, but it can also be made of wool and more recently synthetic fibers. The basic weave is usually simple, either twill or plain, but extra wefts are woven in according to a definite pattern, and later cut to form the pile. Corduroy is the same as velveteen, except the pile does not cover the entire face of the fabric. Both corduroy and velveteen are types of fustian. At one time the ribs were cut by hand, one at a time. They were then brushed to raise the pile. It was in effect a kind of poor man's velvet because its pile is made of cotton rather than more expensive materials like silk or satin. The ribs in corduroy are called wales which evolved from the Anglo Saxon walu meaning to flail with stripes. They vary from the narrow pinwale to the broader wide wale. Corduroy with a fine rib is an almost velvet-like fabric and is used for better clothes as well as draperies and upholstery. Cotton corduroy is inexpensive, washable, and durable. For this reason it was a fabric widely worn by workers and people of humble circumstances. By the 20th century these characteristics caused corduroy to be adopted for children's clothes as well as other garments demanding durability. It was used for soldier's clothes during World War I.


Corduroy appears to be one of several related fabvrics classified as fustians which date bacl the early-19th oir late-18th century. Corduroy is one of the hsardest weaing fabrics. Good quality cordurooy is made from high quality 100 percent cotton. Price seens to hsave been a key factor in the production. No one realy knows who created fabrics like corduroy and moleski. Like velveteen, they make up a group of related fabrics which areknown as fustians. Fustian has been used differently, but in the early 19th Century was generally used in the sence of a strong, hard wearing woven cloth made with a linen warp and cotton weft. Later the definition shifted to describe that group of woven cloths having a high ratio of weft threads to warp threads. This is important because he weave gave the appearance of a smoothed surface. Some weaves interrupted the smoth surface by equally spaced ribs, sometimes called races. They ran the length of the piece, and could be cut by specialised equipment before it was died. This helped form or accentuate the raised pile which virtually defines corduroy.


All too many poorly reserached clothing texts will repeat the common misunderstanding that the term corduroy is a corruption of the French "corde du roi", corde or fabric of the king. This certainly sounds plausible as "corde du roi" does indeed look a great deal like "corduroy". It was a supposedly a material used as the hunting livery for the King of France's attendants on the Royal hunt. The world-recognized Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has researched word origins and development through inumerable period quotations over time. For corduroy, the OED reports, "a name apparently of English invention; either originally intended, or soon after assumed, to represent a supposed French 'corde du roi' (the King's cord), it being a kind of corded fustian." Fustian is a stout fabric made of cotton or wool or even low-quality wool. It commonly has a short pile or nap. HBC knows of no contemprary records of the term "corduroy" ir equivalent French spelling ever having used in France during the time in which the fabric appeared in Britain.


The manufacture of fabric was a major industry across the British midlands in the 19th century. Manchester was the leading textile-manufacturing city in England. The woolen industry was active in Manchester in the 13th century. The production of cotton fabrics began in the 17th century, Manchester was the world center during the 19th and early 20th century in the manufacture of cotton fabrics, even beconing known as "Cottonpolis". One of the English specialties became corduroy. There was a great demand for the relative inexpensive, hard wearing fabric among the poorly paid urban workers in the expanding industrial cities of Britain and continental Europe. An inexpensive, but hard wearing fabric had great appeal. Mills in South Lancashire, especially Manchester, were renowned for their hard-wearing corduroy fabric.


A wide range of terms have been used in different countries to refer to corduroy:
Dutch: There are several words for corduroy in velvet. The term "Manchester" has been used in the Netherlands, probably picked up from the German. It is the word for the heavy material kind of corduroy. "Ribfluweel" (fluweel means velvet) is used for the velvet kind of corduroy. "Ribcord" is used for corduroy too. The English word "corduroy" is also commonly used in Dutch also.
English: The proper English word is "corduroy", although cord is more commonly used. The OED describes corduroy as "a kind of coarse, thick-ribbed cotton stuff, worn chiefly by laborers or persons engaged in rough work." A typical period quotation includes this 1795 item: "The manufacture comprehends the various cotton stuffs known by the names of corduroy, velverett, velveteen, thicksett, etc."
French: The French called it "velours côtelé" (ribbed velvet) or simply "velours", leading to obvious confusion with "true velvet". Indeed HBC notes that HBC's French readers often refer to corduroy as "velvet". Of course this has been complicated as some inexpensive velvet-like fabric is today made with cotton and marketed as velvet or velveteen--but this is not true velvet. The texture of the two fabrics has some relationship, but true velvet is much more plush and very expensive as it was made with silk rather than cotton and with a fashion image almost the opposite of corduroy.
German: The manufacture of corduroy was so concentrated in South Lancashire during the 19th century that corduroy became known in Germany as "Manchesterstoff" (Manchester fabric), later abbreviated simply as "Manchester". Gradually "kordsamt" (corded velvet) and finally "kord," the modern term.
Sebo-Croatian: Corduroy has been referred to as "Manchester", probably borrowing the 19th century German term. German-speaking Austria controlled or was very influential in the Balkans until their defeat in World War I during 1918.
Spanish: The common word Spanish word for corduoy is "pana". HBC is not sure of the derivation. In some Latin American countries, especially Mexico, the English "corduroy" is also used.
Other languages: Corduroy is inaccurately refereed to as velvet in several countries. Other countries have specialized names for corduroy, including Danish (jernbaneflojl--railway velvet), Esperanto (kordurojo), and Italian (frustagno).

Technical Aspects

Corduroy is a cut filling-pile fabric with pronounced vertical ridges, or wales, which are discussed above. Extra filling yarns in corduroy float over a number of warp yarns that form either a plain or twill-weave ground. After corduroy fabric is woven the floating yarns are cut. The pile is then brushed and singed which produces a clear cord effect. We do not have a lot of technical information on the weaving process. A reader has asked about the manner in which corduroy is woven and how is it cut/sheared in order to obtain the pile effect. He is also interested in the role of V / W interlace and how this is achieved on the weave structure. We would be interested in any information readers can have on this.


Corduroy was originally made from cotton, in part because it was a fabric marketed to working class people who could not afford more expensive wool fabrics. Modern corduroy fabric is now commonly made from a variety of synthetic fiber or synthetic fibers blended with cotton. We have noted numerous accounts that modern corduroy fabric is not of the same quality as that available as late as the the 1950s. HBC is not sure as to how to attribute the decline in quality. The weight of the corduroy favbric commonly available does seem much lighter than previously. Heavy-weight high-quality corduroy can today be quite expensive.


"Wales" are the vertical ribs in woven cloth. The term is also used to describe the texture or weave of a fabric. The wales are particularly notable in corduroy fabric. Corduroy "wales" are an especially important aspect of the fabric. Wales are an aspect of quality, but they are also an aspect of fashion which has changed over time. The wales of cotton fabric are affected to some extent by the garment involved. HBC has noted corduroy shirts with relatively narrow wales, normally 18 or higher. Corduroy has, however, been more commonly used for pants than shirts. Wider wales are more common for jackets and pants. The ribbage per inch could vary from 1.5 to 21, although perhaps 4-18 is more common. The traditional "standard" falls somewhere between 10 and 12. Less than 4 wales to the inch would shade into the shaggy "jumbo cord" popular around 1970. The especially narrow wales are not as heavy wearing and, as one of our HBC contributors reports, "more than 18 would not support a sufficiently solid, boy-proof base".

Fashion Image

Corduroy was generally looked down on by fashion writers in the 19th Century. It was seen as the poor man's velvet because the pile was made out of inexpensive cotton rather thank silk. One writer, Sydney Webb, declared that corduroy had been regulated to the use of navies and tramps. It was not a fashionable fabric, but throughout much of the 19th century generally seen as suitable for laborers, who at the time were looked down on socially. Corduroy also became popular for rural and working-class boys' clothing at this time. But this was not the stylishly clothes made for boys from affluent families. Rather boys who wore corduroy might wear their fathers cut down clothes or small versions of work clothes as they often began working at a very young age. Specialized children's clothes in corduroy for children, such as short pants, did not become widely accepted until, the late 19th century. Gradually the warmth, comfort, and hard wearing characteristics of corduroy became increasingly accepted. Two developments in the early 20th century helped to change the image of corduroy. First, corduroy was often worn by boys in the popular uniformed youth groups like the Scouts and Wandervogel. These middle-class movements helped to end the working-class stigma that corduroy had acquired. Second, corduroy was worn by some soldiers in World War I (1914-18) and on the home front the practicality and hard-wearing attributes of corduroy made in increasingly popular. After the War, it was widely accepted for boys wear for both working class and more affluent families.

Distinctive Characteristics

Readers have mentioned a variety of destinctive characteristics associated with corduroy garments. Chief among these have been the sound and the smell. Most of these reports have come from British readers.


One aspect of corduroy that many boys recall is the distinctive sound you made when walking in them. This was especially true in a new pair. Gavin Maxwell, the Scottish naturalist, remembers wearing corduroy breeches (knickers) at St. Wulfric's, a preparatory school in Eastbourne. He was there about 1917. He describes explains that the uniform was a green jersey (sweater) and corduroy breeches. He recalls that his breeches rubbed with a "purring noise" as the boys walked.


We have noticed some reports, primarily from our British readers that corduroy garments had a destinctive smell. One Irish boy recalls in the 1910s that he was teased unmercifully by English boys because his corduroy suit smaelled bad when it got wet. [Bill Naughton, Saintly Billy.] We also note that The Scouter magazine in the 1930s recognized te smell problem for its line of cord shorts. They indicated that it was the result of the "clay or size filling" used in finishing the cloth a disappears after the first wash. [The Scouter, July, 1930.]


Corduroy throughout the 19th century was exclusively used for men's and boys' clothes. During the first half of the 20th century it continued to be seen as primarily a material for boy's clothing. As a school uniform garment in England it was again almost exclusively a boys garment. Boys wore cord jackets and trousers, but the girls never wore either cord jackets or skirts. We note at one school where the boys were allowed to wear either cord shorts or longs that the girls were allowed to wear the cord longs as an option, but not the cord shorts. HBC has noted some girl's garments in America such as cord dresses by the 1960s. A variety of outfits for younger children, both boys and girls, were also made in cord. We're not sure, however, when the first cord garments for girls appeared.


The development of corduroy and changing fashion image can be followed in a variety of contemporary texts. Paintings and photographs offer also offer interesting insights as to who was wearing corduroy and the type of garments worn over time. The earliest reference we have noted is 1790, but the fabric appears to have originated in the 1780s. By the mid-19th century it was being worn by rural and working-class boys, but was worn by boys of all social classes during the first half of the 20th century, especially after World War I (1914-18). Since World War II (1939-45) the use of corduroy has significantly declined, being largely displaced by denim. At this time our references are mostly English, but hopefully our Continental readers will offer further information.


Corduroy has been used for a wide variety of garments. It appears to have been most popular in America, England, and France. I'm not sure why it was less worn in other countries. The cord garments and usage varied among those countries. Trousers seem to have been one of the most popular garments. I am not precisely sure when the corduroy fabric crossed the channel to France or became widely used for boys' trousers.


Corduroy was used for suits. It was not the most common material used, but as late as the 1970s there were corduroy suits available. The ones made in the United States during the 1920s and 30s were mostly knicker suits.


Cord jackets were once quite popular. They were once worn much like boys wear denim jackets today. Some English schools adopted them as part of the school uniform, often the every day working uniform--often worn with cord shorts.


Corduroy was one of the most popular material for boys knickers in America during the 1920s and 30s. Most boys wore knickers in the 1920s and they are still widely worn in the 1930s. The knickers worn to school and everyday where were quite commonly made of corduroy. Cord was generally seen as a suitable material for fall and cold weather wear--one reason why they were commonly worn to school.

Short pants

Cord short pants began to appear in England during the 1920s and soon became very popular as play or casual clothes. Some schools even adopted them for school uniform because of their hard-wearing characteristics. Colors were mostly grey or blue, although some fawn and dark green cord shorts were also available. Cord shorts were also commonly worn in France where some Scout groups adopted them. They appear to have been widely worn by French Scouts in the 1950s. American boys did commonly wear cord shirts in the 1920s and 30s. They did become quite popular in the 1970s and 80s. A California company marketed OP shorts, briefly cut cord shorts in many colors.

Long pants

American boys began wearing cord long pants as knickers went out of style. They were commonly worn in the 1930s and 40s, but began to decline in popularity during the 1950s as jeans became increasingly popular. A British reader writes, "Cord longs in Britain go back well before the 1980s as casual wear for both boys and men. In fact baggy corduroy longs were almost a uniform for older schoolmasters in the 1940s and 1950s, when not more formally attired!Levi Strauss made their jeans in cord as an alternative to denim, I think in the late 1970s, and caused a shortage of supply at the time."

Bibfront shorts

Corduroy was and still is seen as a suitable material for small children. It is a heavy material suitable for cold weather and can take a lot of rough wear that younger children often require. Bibfront shorts were a popular style for younger children beginning in the 1930s. Bibfront shorts were made in many material. Cord was not the most common, but was one of the many materials used.

Figure 2.--Corduroy shorts were adopted in the 1950s by a number of British preparatory schools. Most choose either grey or blue shorts. These boys were at a Scottish prep school.

Country Information

Corduroy was considered a rough material for workers clothing for much of the 19th century. By the early 20th century it was being adopted for children's and youth clothing. It has been popular at times in the 20th Century, especially as casual dress, but has in most countries suffered from competition with denim. The warmth and comfort of corduroy was recognized. Corduroy has proven popular in England, France, Germany, the United States, and many other countries. As in France, cord shorts were widely worn by Belgian boys during the first half of the 20th century. Some private Catholic schools had uniforms with blue cord shorts and white kneesocks. We have very limited information about corduroy in Canada at this time. We believe that it was extensively imported from England as used for working clothes. As in America, corduroy was a popular fabric for winter school clothes. I'm not sure if corduroy was worn for boys' clothes in the 19th Century. Soldiers in World War I wore corduroy and perhaps it was introduced as casual adult and boys' clothes after the War. I believe that corduroy first began to be used for short pants in England during the 1920s or 30s. The long-wearing characteristics of corduroy attracted the interest of mothers. I believe that boys wore them for play in England much as modern boys wear jeans. Some schools adopted cord school shorts as part of the school uniform, I think primarily in the 1950s. Cord shorts were also commonly worn by French boys. They were especially popular in the 1930s and 40s. Several Scout groups adopted them for their uniform. A few private schools also adopted them--usually blue cords. Corduroy in Germany was used in Germany mainly for men's working trousers and jackets. Corduroy was also used for the traditional black cord Zimmermannhose (carpenter's trousers) with a flap front as in Lederhosen. Hard wearing corduroy was adopted by many Wandervogel boys during the late 19th and early 20th century for their short pants hiking trousers. HBC has no little on the use of corduroy in Ireland, but suspects that it was similar to the use in England. We note a referene about an Irish boy ho recalls a corduroy suit his father purchased for him. HBC has developed considerable information on Dutch boys clothing, but we do not yet have much information on corduroy. We do not yet have any written reports, but believe it was a popular fabric for boys clothes. One 1952 magazine ad for heavy sweaters show a boy wearing wide weal cord trousers. HBC has little information on the use of corduroy in New Zealand. A New Zealand reader, however does recall wearing corduroy as a boy growing up in New Zealand. He recalls wearing cord shorts at 16 years of age. Scottish boys like English boys wore cord shorts. A few private schools adopted them for school uniforms. At this time we do not know f any differences between Scotland and England concerning the use of corduroy for boys clothing. We still know relatively about corduroy in America. We believe it was worn in the late 19th century, but have little information at this time. Presumably the first corduroy material in America. was imported from England. We know that it was worn in the early 20th century. Corduriy in the 1920s the fabric was commonly worn in America for boys' knickers. Many boys went to school in cord knickers. They were generally considered cold-weather pants. Cord jackets were also popular.


Corduroy has proven a popular fabric for schoolwear because of its warmth and durability. American boys commonly wore corduroy knickers. I recall wearing cord shirts and pants to school in America during the 1950s. Corduroy was also used for school wear in England. This included both as uniforms and regular schools. Curiously cord uniforms were adopted by private prep schools and borstals (reformatories)--as disimilar institutions as can be imangined. I do not know of any state schools that had cord uniforms. Mothers varied as to their attitudes toward corduroy. Some British mothers thought they wetre suitable for play and not for school. One British boy tells us his mother bought cird shorts, but only for play. We believe corduroy was also wirn by French and German boys to school, but we have few details at this time.

Youth Groups

Corduroy is probably more assocaited with youth group uniforms than any other fabric, although today it is little used. Corduroy was widely worn by working-class boys in the 19th century who required pants made out of a cheap, hard wearing fabric. After the turn of the 20th century, corduroy began to lose its working class image and was increasingly used for children's clothing. The use of corduroy by the Wandervogel and Scouts was one factor that helped to change the image of corduroy. Corduroy because of its hard wearing and other attributes was often worn as part of the uniform of youth groups. Usually the cord garment selected was short pants. The first group to do so, to our knowledge, was the German Wandervogel. Cord shorts were akso widely worn by Scouts, especially in Britain and France. Hitler Youth boys wore black cord shorts.


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Created: November 19, 1998
Spell chcked: February 3, 2002
Last updated: 8:21 AM 10/2/2009