WE MAY be experiencing something of a late summer heat wave but a fabric previously described by Britain's fashion gurus as "a great palate-cleanser for autumn" is undergoing a remarkable renaissance.

On Thursday The Cords & Co - a new Stockholm-based retailer dedicated solely to premium corduroy fashions for men and women - will open a London branch in a bid to bring the functional counter-culture material to a new and fashion-aware audience.The British outlet is one of six shops it plans to open around the world dedicated to a fabric the company describes as "the desirable alternative to denim". And in embracing the material once considered the world's least sexy fabric, it joins big-hitters such as Gucci and Prada.

First spotted on the Prada catwalk in January, the durable vintage material that until recently was most closely associated with geography teachers and fashion-blind Lefties such as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has also been rediscovered by upmarket clothing brands such as Mulberry, Marc Jacobs and Alexa Chung.

Meanwhile Gucci has produced a £1,610 floral jacket made of the hard-wearing fabric and you can pick up a more modest bottle-green equivalent from Mango for £90. Mulberry's offering is a £450 dusty-pink skirt, Marc Jacobs has cord flares for £275 and Alexa Chung has a £325 pinafore dress in her latest collection.

"It's practical, nonintimidating and easy to wear," says insightful Selfridges buying manager Heather Gramston

It has to be said that Corbyn was not alone in embracing corduroy in the 1980s. Diana, Princess of Wales - then the world's ultimate clotheshorse - was spotted wearing a chic pair of corduroy trousers in that period and earlier still even The Beatles went through a corduroy phase.

But these were aberrations. Corduroy hasn't been in fashion outside of a charmed circle of rural landowners and the country sports brigade since the mid-19th century.

"The hunting and fishing communities have always loved our corduroy," says Malcolm Helliwell of Lancashire-based Brisbane Moss, the UK's biggest corduroy factory. "Our fabrics and styles remain the same as they have for the 100 years we've been producing it."


But in recent decades, apart from a 1970s revival, corduroy has hardly been considered the height of sophistication. Perhaps most damaging of all for a long period was its association with children thanks to the corduroy-wearing kids who starred in the The Brady Bunch, a US sitcom about a blended family of six children. But no less an authority than fashion bible Vogue recently decreed that the fabric was on-trend once again.

"The Brady Bunch lived their lives in a wholesomeness that was dotted with mustard-hued flares and burnt sienna blazers all made from corduroy," declared a recent Vogue editorial. "But corduroy is still a cool, daytime staple."

No one knows this better than the supermodel Kate Moss. Despite its uncool reputation she has been wearing the fabric doggedly for more than two decades.

It's also been a favourite of actress Jane Birkin, famous for recording the controversially sexy chart hit Je t'aime in the 1960s, who chose to slope around Paris in a white T-shirt and a pair of pale cord jeans - fine-ridged needlecord, naturally.

And that's significant. Fine cord is acceptable, the wide geography-teacher stuff less so. The width of the cord is known as the "wale" and it's measured in ridges per inch. The lower the wale number, the thicker the ridge of the wale - 4-wale is much thicker than 11-wale, for example.

But although corduroy is believed by many to be a 20th-century fashion phenomenon, corduroy existed for more than 2,000 years before it acquired its modern name.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites 1774 as the earliest use of the word corduroy but its ancestor was a cotton weave known as "fustian", which was developed in the Egyptian city of Fustat in 200BC.

Brushed fabrics remained an Egyptian speciality until the medieval period when Italian merchants introduced the fabric to western Europe.

The growth in the cotton trade between the 12th and 14th centuries saw corduroy become popular in England and France where it gained an elite reputation. Henry VIII clamoured for the warmth of fustian in the 16th century during the chilly days before central heating

Until recently it was believed that the word corduroy came from a 17th-century English derivation of the French "corde du roi" or "cloth of the king" but it is now understood that the term is a compound of the word "cord", referring to its tufted, row-by-row pattern and "duroy" which was a coarse woollen fabric made in England in the early 18th century.

By then, the cloth had become a popular hard-wearing choice for workwear and military uniforms, while white fustian was often used for ladies' dresses. In the late 18th century, corduroy was being manufactured in Manchester as factory wear for townspeople in industrial areas and in parts of Europe corduroy is still known as "Manchester".

Now in a remarkable renaissance "poor man's velvet" is discovering a brand new audience and there is not a bellbottom in sight

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