History of the Henley Shirt

Henley-on-Thames: how the town, and the shirt it gave birth to, made a name for themselves

Henley Royal Regatta is the most prestigious regatta in the world, but as with all great things it had humble beginnings.

The townspeople of Henley in the south of England, could not get enough of their rowing in the early 1800s. They loved it. So much so, that they would make a rather big deal out of it, running unofficial races and throwing a little party afterwards every now and then. Word spread of the enthusiasm with which the town threw themselves behind what most people considered at the time as a mere leisure activity, and it attracted more and more visitors each year.Henley Regatta, 1890.

This went on until March 1839 when, following the popularity of the events in the preceding years, Captain Edmund Gardiner at the town meeting proposed “the establishing of an annual regatta, under judicious and respectable management”, because well, things got a bit rowdy, “would not only be productive of the most beneficial results to the town of Henley, but from its peculiar attractions would also be a source of amusement and gratification to the neighbourhood, and the public in general”, and so the Henley Regatta was born.

In the early days, it was still a fairly informal event, where fun was the order of the day, and many different types of rowing wagers and activities took place. It only became “Royal” Regatta in 1851, when Prince Albert became its first royal patron and the regatta slowly became an increasingly formal affair.

Left: an early Henley Regatta poster, 1841, encouraging participation in "a waterman's wager", but note, no London watermen allowed - one can only assume the trouble they caused the previous year!

Right: Royal Henley Peace Regatta poster, 1919, in recognition of the end of WWI. 

Little did Captain Gardiner know that it was to become the world’s most prestigious rowing event almost two centuries later and, along with it, give birth to a peculiar garment that is to enjoy as much international popularity as the event in which it was worn – the henley shirt.

Spectators at Henley Regatta, 1900.

Visitors from everywhere descended on Henley every year, showing off their boaters and blazers. 

In the early days of rowing at the turn of the 19th century, before the time of technical wear, there was very little difference between what men wore for different pursuits in life – the shirt they wore in town, would have been the same shirt they used when they hopped into the boat for the rowing. But the folks at Henley had a problem with this – the collared shirts had long sleeves, buttoned all the way through and did not provide a lot of ventilation. They were far too restrictive, especially for the competitive rowers at Henley, who rowed rather vigorously.

At the time, there was a type of undergarment that had a v neck opening, placket down the middle, 3 or 4 button closure that could be left undone which allowed for plenty of ventilation, and was made in a stretchy cotton jersey which enabled freedom of movement (compared to the stiff woven cotton fabric that dress shirts were made out of). Due to advances of the industrial age, this undergarment was cheap (so no need to be precious with it), comfortable, mass produced, and everywhere. Perfect, the rowers at Henley thought. And so the townsmen of Henley decided to switch out their shirts for these much more practical undergarments when rowing. Yes, it was underwear, but performance was more important, and so for the first time, the undergarment was worn at the rowing in Henley. This coincided with the international success of Henley’s annual rowing event, where people from around the world saw the ingenuity of the garment’s usage by the townsfolk. It quickly became standard issue for rowers worldwide.

And as the undershirt was first worn by the rowers at Henley, so the name stuck.

The RAF rowing team, in their henley shirts. Shown here is an (in)famous British celebratory ceremony known as "ducking" - RAF cox being ducked after the RAF crew secured their first victory at Henley Regatta. 

Since then, the henley shirt had been donned by legendary rowers all through the 19th and early 20th century, and it became associated with the rugged charm of British Olympians, legends such as Jack Beresford, who overcame a serious leg wound in WWI and went on to win five medals at five Olympic games in succession (three golds, two silvers), a record not matched by any rower until the year 2000.

Left: Olympians Jack Beresford of team GB and Walter Hoover of team USA in their respective team's henley shirts, shaking hands at the Henley Royal Regatta, 1922. 

Right: Jack Beresford, CBE.

It was also the shirt favoured by the Oxford and Cambridge rowing teams who competed annually since 1829, the most famous of which was the boat race centenary of 1929, the 100th anniversary of the prestigious boat race.

Oxford rowing team, 1950s.

The henley shirt continued to enjoy widespread popularity throughout the 20th century, a garment regularly worn by working men on both sides of the pond. In the US, they enjoyed the softness of the garment against the skin as a buffer against the coarser, hardwearing work shirts they had to wear, as well as the ventilation of the open neck.

Left: rail workers, Clinton County, 19th Century.

Right: men's henley shirts, featured in Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog, 1927 - 1928.

Our merino rower’s henley takes after the collarless buttoned tops first worn by rowers at Henley. Just like henley shirts of old, our version is knitted, but instead of cotton, it is made in Scotland by heritage knitters to the world’s highest quality standards, using Zegna Baruffa’s prestigious Cashwool® extrafine merino, the world’s softest merino wool with a cashmere like hand feel, making it soft against the skin, as well as light and breezy when worn. A luxury henley shirt, if you will. Designed to be an elevated version of an old rower’s henley shirt, it is fully fashioned and hand linked (rather than cut and sewn), allowing for a neater fit throughout the whole garment.

It has a deeper v neck than the traditional henley (which has more of a round neck). We think that the deeper v neck creates a more flattering neckline, and brings it closer to the shape of the neckline of a collared shirt, allowing the “v-shape” of the neck to align better with the lapels of a sport coat, for example. Adorned with beautifully crafted mid brown horn buttons (rather than white mother of pearl or plastic), we believe this feature makes the piece more muted and elegant. It also boasts longer short sleeves and longer ribbed cuffs and hems – in keeping with traditional henleys. 

When we think of the henley shirt, we think of the townspeople of Henley and the example they set - that if you love what you do and pursue it with reckless passion without regard to what others think (let's not forget, they did row in their undershirts for enhanced performance...), others will be drawn to that passion and success will follow.

Henley Regatta, packed with boats and visitors, 1889.

A rower at Henley Regatta, 1969.