The Tribute

The Unsung Heroes Of Corduroy

Messrs Bob Dylan, Robert Redford, Wes Anderson… the stylish men who wore the winter-proof fabric best

  • Mr Bill Murray in The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001. Photograph by Touchstone Pictures/Allstar Picture Library

“Corduroy pants and an old plaid shirt/Daddy went a-walkin’ just to feel the earth,” sang Mr Neil Young in his 2000 song “Daddy Went Walkin’”, reinforcing corduroy’s image as a backwoods workwear staple. And yes, its ridged fibres, or wales, are as rugged, durable, and winter-proof as you could wish. But the fabric has also proved a resilient style choice. It may be apocryphal that the name originally comes from the French corde du roi, or the cloth of kings, but it has acquired regal status with everyone from 18th-century aristocrats and 19th-century pioneers to preppies, Beat poets, and, yes, high-school teachers. Its continuing relevance is a mark of its versatility – baggy dishevelment is out (with apologies to Mr Woody Allen), with modern interpretations accentuating slim and flattering cuts, whether it’s a classic five-pocket trouser or a sharply-tailored suit. Follow the lead of the kings of corduroy below, and you’re sure to have a wale of a time.

MR SERGE GAINSBOURG

  • Mr Serge Gainsbourg with Ms Jane Birkin in Normandy, 1969. Photograph by Mr Tony Frank

So synonymous with the fabric in question did Mr Serge Gainsbourg become that, after his death, his lover and muse Ms Jane Birkin reported that “he comes back to me as a ghost in his corduroy coat.” In fact, cord’s slouchy loucheness was a perfect match for Mr Gainsbourg’s own; he could stay up all night in his baby blue jacket (as he was wont to do), perhaps dashing off a song about some peculiarly transgressive form of sexual congress, and, pausing only to dust the Gitanes ash from the garment’s velveteen ribs, go straight out for his first pre-noon cognac. We’re surprised there isn’t a song about his favourite material among Mr Gainsbourg’s vast oeuvre, but if there were, he would surely have rhymed “corduroy” with “mode d’emploi” – he knew how to make it work for him.

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MR BOB DYLAN

  • Mr Bob Dylan in Stockholm, Sweden, April 1966. Photograph by Mr Olle Lindeborg/Press Association Images

“They’ll stone ya when you’re at the breakfast table/They’ll stone ya when you wear your corduroy blazer…” The freewheelin’, Nobel Prize-winning Mr Bob Dylan didn’t quite sing those very words in his estimable “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, but he didn’t need to. The way he co-opted corduroy in the early 1960s, borrowing some Mr Woody Guthrie-esque dustbowl-troubadour grit by making reference to its rich history as a hardwearing frontiersman fabric, while high-styling it with mod-sharp fitted cuts and spotted shirts, was tribute enough. Mr Dylan’s patronage ensured that the material gained a kind of folky cred that continues to resonate in Greenwich Village and beyond, and no wonder; he may have “gone electric” in 1965, but, style-wise, he’d attained that status long since.

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MR WES ANDERSON

  • Mr Wes Anderson, Los Angeles, November 2004. Photograph by Famous Pictures

No one has done more to elevate the corduroy suit in latter years than Mr Anderson. His preferred style – slim-fit, caramel-shaded, shorter-trousered, accessorised with a sharp white shirt or polo neck – has turned up on numerous characters in his films, from Mr Bill Murray in The Royal Tenenbaums to the eponymous Fantastic Mr Fox: a replica of “my very favourite suit, in my favourite colour, that I wear 200 days a year,” he confirmed of the latter’s outfit. Mr Anderson’s suavely timeless ensembles – groovily retro in feel, yet cut with a very modern bias – are as far removed from the rumpled-geography-teacher stereotype as, well, his richly delineated filmic worlds are from the prosaic everyday.

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MR FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT

  • Mr François Truffaut on the set of Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent (Two English Girls), 1971. Photograph by Mr Etienne George/Sygma via Getty Images

Mr Truffaut reckoned that cinema was an improvement on life, so what else would the legendary filmmaker wear while making cinema (in this instance, his 1971 film Two English Girls) than a fabric that has its own enhancing properties when it comes to durability, ease, and all those other qualities essential for the 4.30am starts and creative tussles of an average shooting schedule, while boasting as much disarming flair as a Nouvelle Vague jump cut? Mr Truffaut adds a few style flourishes to his corduroy bomber – a gathered collar, a rakishly turned-back cuff – to create his very own director’s cut.

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MR PAUL NEWMAN

  • Mr Paul Newman, 1956. Photograph © 1978 Mr Sanford Roth/AMPAS/mptvimages.com

He may not have kick-started Ivy League style, but with his penchant for the crispest Oxford button-downs, the sharpest of blazers, and the most languid of loafers, it was a look that very much became – if you’ll pardon the salad-dressing reference – Mr Newman’s own. And the finishing touch, to put the “yay!” in Yale? His way with a corduroy suit – a fine-waled, slim-cut, tapered-trousered iteration that chimed with his air of action-ready cool. It was also a look he kept faith with, his personal assistant reporting in the 1990s that he’d had a “bonfire of the tuxedos”: “He’s down to just a few pairs of slacks and cords.”

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MR ROBERT REDFORD

  • Mr Robert Redford in All The President’s Men, 1976. Photograph by Warner Bros. Courtesy of The Neal Peters Collection

Mr Newman’s erstwhile buddy in 1969’s Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid – in which, not incidentally, his character’s bank-robbing prowess was only boosted by his array of dust-brown widest-wale sport coats – Mr Redford cannily retained the wide-plains-drifter look (city desk version) when heading east for 1976’s All The President’s Men, not only to invest his reporter character with some outsider edge, but also because his sandy, red-blonde hair – not to mention his piercingly blue eyes – proved a perfect counterpart to the earthy shades of a classic corduroy suit. “Bravado” isn’t a word normally associated with cord, but precede it with “understated,” and you’ve got the key as to why, in Mr Redford’s hands, fustian is far from fusty.

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