Velvet is a woven fabric with a silk pile on top, while velour is a knit, blended cotton fabric. Velvet also typically has less give than velour, which tends to be somewhat stretchy. Both feel and look similar, however.
Aside from their physical composition, velvet and velour are usually used for different purposes. Velvet is predominantly used to make clothing. Velour is used for curtains, drapes, furniture and blankets.
Velvet first saw use thousands of years ago. According to popular belief, the pre-cursor to modern velvet was first woven in China. Velvet became a choice fabric throughout southern Europe during the Renaissance. In particular, the cities of Venice, Genoa and Florence were renowned for their velvet-making industries. Many examples of the intricate patterned velvets made during the Renaissance hang in museums today.
Velour is a later French invention; the word does not appear before the 18th century. "Velours" is the French word for velvet. The modern fabric that is known as velour, however, has only been around since it was invented in 1844 in France. Despite the differences in the respective construction and purpose of velvet and velour, many people use the two words interchangeably. Although velour is often considered a budget-conscious version of velvet, this is not always the case.