My mother loves to sew. Most of the clothes I wore as a child were pieces she made — at least until I reached that age when you start wanting the same stuff as your friends. She was drawn, back then, to fabrics with texture, so my wardrobe was filled with nubby chenille and terry cloth, which I loved, and corduroy —which I did not. Some of my earliest memories of school are of shuffling down corridors and hearing, louder than life, the whish-whish of my wide-wale corduroy dungarees as the rib on each trouser leg rubbed against its opposite number. I was convinced all the other kids could hear the sound, too, and that they laughed about it when I wasn’t around. God, I hated those overalls. When I finally grew out of them, I swore I would never wear corduroy again.
That’s a promise I’m suddenly finding hard to keep. Sure, I’ve been tempted by the material before now — beckoned by the photos of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg in their matching cords, beguiled by the insouciance of Diane Keaton in that too-big corduroy blazer she wore in Annie Hall, briefly deluded by images of current French It-girl (and corduroy fanatic) Jeanne Damas into thinking maybe, possibly, I’d look as chic as she did in high-waisted flares. Yet I have resisted. Until now. How is one to resist the mannish, mud-toned trousers in Prada’s autumn/winter 2017 collection — the ones that look as if they were stolen off your professor boyfriend’s floor? Or that corduroy coat modelled by Slick Woods at the Marc Jacobs show, with its fluffy shearling collar? Or the super-sized corduroy suit at Lemaire, or the kicky A-line skirts at Tory Burch, the picture of nonchalantly natty Home Counties style?
The point is, corduroy is trending — hard. And there are a few reasons for this. One is that fashion is having a gender-bending moment. Corduroy is a menswear staple: although its popularity has waxed and waned over the years, the material has never entirely fallen out of favour. It’s the “integrity” of the fabric that’s led Margaret Howell to use it consistently in her men’s collections: as she notes, corduroy is “tough, durable, yet soft and smooth to touch — a good winter cotton that makes great men’s trousers and jackets”. Meanwhile, we ladies have taken quite a fancy, of late, to shopping for looks made for boys. And so, naturally, designers have seen fit to produce men’s and women’s looks that are virtual twins — to wit, the corduroy suits that Miuccia Prada sent down the runway at her women’s show in February of this year were dead ringers for the ones she debuted in January for the gents.
The broad lapels on those Prada suit jackets are the clue to another cause of the great corduroy revival. Seventies-inspired fashions are back with a vengeance, and that decade was a high-water mark for corduroy. As New York designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh explains, her own inclusion of corduroy in her current collection was inspired both by an appreciation of its earthy, textural quality — the same thing that charmed my mum — and the allure of Seventies photographs of corduroy-clad beauties such as Lauren Hutton and Anjelica Huston. The cords at Nina Ricci and at Brunello Cucinelli likewise had a Seventies flair.
The aforementioned Annie Hall was released in 1977; a year earlier, Robert Redford demonstrated the absolute best way to wear corduroy in All the President’s Men – while deeply absorbed by stuff other than how you look. And that, ultimately, is the reason corduroy feels so right, right now. This durable material — “the poor man’s velvet”, as it was known in the days when corduroy was most closely associated with the working class — has long been a favourite both of academic types up to their eyeballs in books and of country ladies and gentlemen mucking about in fields. It conjures the distraction of deep contemplation and/or a certain “outdoor glamour” — Tory Burch’s winning description of her autumn/ winter 2017 muse, Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. “Corduroy plays a very big part” in communicating Hepburn’s Yankee directness, Burch notes. It’s the fabric of labour, of toil in some honest pursuit.
To turn to an overused word, corduroy feels authentic. And at a time, much like the Seventies, when so much seems so up in the air — with Brexit bearing down on one side of the pond, the Tweeter-in-Chief wreaking havoc on the other, and over in Russia, the Cold War replaying, this time as farce — it feels necessary to grasp on to any sturdy thing that’s around. And no textile is more sturdy than corduroy. It’s ancient, based on a material called fustian that’s been around since the 12th century; it’s utilitarian; and with its welcoming ribbed hand, it never lets you forget that it’s there. Whish-whish. I like that sound now, as I don a pair of Margaret Howell’s baggy boy-cut cords and amble around my dressing room. Whish-whish. It’s the sound of reality, in an epoch of fake news.