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SUBCULTURE

The Art of Corduroy

Words by Ben Perdue
Photos courtesy of the Museum of Youth Culture
December 2021

A deep dive into Manchester’s finest, we examine why corduroy has the look, feel and sound of the underground.            

Unlike other materials, corduroy brings a multi-sensorial depth to everything it becomes. Greater than the sum of its parts, it combines looks, texture, and noise as it moves. Cut and brushed to a velvet-like touch, this ribbed cotton fabric was developed in the mills of 19th century Lancashire, explaining the nickname of ‘Manchester’ outside the UK. Hardwearing in spite of the plush finish, it was worn by the working classes before being co-opted by counterculture, like denim but sharper and more political. Its role in subculture has roots in the radical music scenes of the 60s and 70s. Touch, sound, and vision working seamlessly together. 

Photo by Rebecca Lewis

This irresistible ability to engage more than a single sense resembles the multi-disciplinary approach contemporary art shows use to tailor meaningful experiences. An immersive direction being pushed even further by a new generation of curators, like Ben Broome, whose underground Drawing a Blank events take over unconventional venues with a DIY mix of diverse artists and mediums. “I try to create a space that’s accessible to everyone,” says Broome. “Whether they’re a critic for The New York Times or a teenage skater kid. 

“And music is an incredible tool to make an exhibition accessible. Not everyone regularly engages with conceptual art but almost everyone listens to music on a daily basis. This is the reason I always have live music at Drawing a Blank shows. A musician like Christophe Chassol has an incredible multi-sensory practice - to me he's just as much a sound or video artist. I'm interested in artists who aren't confined to the boxes people put them in.”

Rhythm is woven into corduroy’s soul. A textile with its own groove that changes depending on the size of its ridges, or wales as they’re known. Repetitive beats you can feel with your fingertips, and that life-affirming voosh as you walk, or dance. No surprise it appeals to so many musical movements, from the jumbo cord flares of early dancehall (influential in Nicholas Daley’s use of corduroy for his own Fred Perry collaboration) and smart Mod trucker jackets, to raving in oversized pin cord shirts. It’s the fabric of sound. 

Photo by Normski
Photo by Gavin Watson
Photo by Gavin Watson

Ignoring the power of engaging them all simultaneously, corduroy’s list of sensorial triggers also means there is something for everyone. Maybe that explains the wide-reaching attraction - it could just be the corrugated touch or velvet sheen that hits differently for you, but like a multi-sensory art show it’s the range of possibilities that matters. “I think a combination of mediums democratises the gallery space,” says Broome. “It's never possible for everyone to like everything, but if one person can resonate with one work my job is done. That's easier to do when there’s a variety of mediums exhibited.”

Its tactile nature, premium finish, and satisfying sound make corduroy unique - together they transform this tough textile into an immersive experience you can wear. There is an artfulness to its multi-sensory appeal that is authentic and contemporary. Deep connections are made in the space between its ridges, with individuals and youth movements alike. A regular fixture of subcultural capital, and recurring theme at Fred Perry. Because corduroy will always have the look, feel, and sound of the underground.

Photo by Gavin Watson