The river-bank will be a riot of colour at Henley Royal Regatta, says Graham Downing, as men replace drab formality with brilliant blazers

In most social situations, so far as dress is concerned, the ladies hold all the cards. While they are free to shimmer and shine in a riot of colours, cuts and fabrics, constrained – barely, in some cases – by the rules of decency, we gentle-men are shoehorned into those uniforms that convention dictates. Black and white, tail coats and dinner jackets, sombre suits and striped trousers are the cross we bear, the only expression of individuality being the reckless cut of a pocket or perhaps the daring glint of un-authorised colour from a silk waistcoat.

There are, however, five days of the Season in which the gentleman is free to throw sar-torial caution to the winds. At Henley Royal Regatta he may dress like a parrot. On the clipped turf in front of the grandstand or in the Fawley Bar he may strut his stuff in the gaudiest of garb while wearing headgear that makes 2014 look like 1894. Hedonism unrestrained, though all in the best possible taste, of course.

We owe this annual liberation to the blazer, that item of clothing associated with the sport of rowing. White, piped, striped or downright dazzling, the rowing blazer speaks of loyalty to one’s crew or club, to the history and traditions of the sport and of warm days glimpsed through a Pimm’s-induced haze while one cheers the efforts of the competing crews, one’s own days on the water but a memory.

From where did the blazer originate? There are competing explanations. One is that in 1845, before blue jackets had become standard wear in the Royal Navy, the Captain of HMS Blazer purchased smart dress jackets with blue and white vertical stripes for the crew of his gig. The more accepted account, how-
ever, is that the blazer derives from the scarlet jackets of Lady Margaret Boat Club, the rowing club of St John’s College, Cambridge, that was said to have “set the water ablaze”.

Though resembling a suit jacket, the blazer is more casually cut, made from a durable fabric and with patch pockets, often with a badge on the breast pocket. Later adopted universally as a uniform dress item for schools, colleges and sports clubs, the blazer’s origins remain rooted on the river-bank. From the late 19th century, oarsmen adopted the dress of white flannel knickerbockers or shorts together with a blazer. Cambridge University Boat Club, which selected its light-blue livery as early as the second University Boat Race of 1836, naturally adopted a blazer of that colour, while Oxford chose dark blue.

There are a limited number of easily identifiable, solid colours that can be selected. The more obvious of these were snapped up by the older and more elite clubs, such as those of the Oxbridge colleges. Other clubs stepped up to the mark: purple for the University of London; palatinate – a pale violet – for Durham; and it is said that Westminster School raced Eton for the honour of wearing the pink blazer. When Lea Rowing Club was founded in 1980 (an amalgamation of five previous clubs), it asked the Amateur Rowing Association for advice about club colours. It was told that bright orange was the last solid colour available, so the club adopted it – and very striking it looks, too, especially when twinned with the pair of luminous yellow trousers I spotted one Lea RC member wearing at Henley last year.

A solid colour can be individualised by the addition of contrasting piping or edging – blue with white, white with blue, red, green or any one of a rainbow of colours – and that, together with a pocket badge, is enough to distinguish one club from another. Again, for the simplest pocket motifs, look to the Oxbridge colleges or older public schools: the Maltese cross of Radley, in red on cream, or Wadham, in white on pale blue. Or to my own college boat club, St John’s Oxford, with its stylish, dark-blue shield and cross on a cream blazer.

But the sheer cunning and originality of oarsmen down the ages has produced some stunning blazer pocket badges. Henley’s own Upper Thames RC has a delightful rendition of Old Father Thames while Curlew RC, founded at Greenwich in 1866, has, not surprisingly, a curlew. Other clubs go heraldic and simply adopt the crest or full coat of arms of the university, college, school or other establishment with which they are associated. The military go camouflaged: the Army Rowing Club’s blazer is neatly cut from a striking desert DPM (camouflage) fabric.

When two or more colours are combined in a striped pattern, the design options are almost endless. They can, moreover, be as restrained or gaudy as the crews or clubs want them to be, making the striped blazer the quintessential garb for off-duty oarsmen. New striped fabrics for rowing club blazers are still being designed and created in Henley-on-Thames by specialist firm Collier & Robinson.

“We design maybe 10 to 15 new rowing club blazers a year,” says the company’s Kristie Shemilt. “Sometimes they are for people starting up a new rowing club, sometimes they are for schools; it’s a complete mixture. Striped fabrics are always popular but we also do a lot of plain colours with perhaps an edging in two- or three-tone silk fabric. And we can do fun things with the crests.”

A new striped fabric design usually equates to an order of 10 blazers, the fabrics – all are woven in England – taking about 10 weeks to be delivered, after which Shemilt works on the final design of the blazer with her customers.

In a rowing blazer, the stripes always run vertically. It is a well-known fact that lateral or hooped stripes exaggerate the girth of the wearer, which may be why they are so popular on the rugby field. But no oarsman, however elderly, would wish to appear portly. Indeed, so far as ex-oarsmen are concerned, donning one’s old rowing blazer is another way of recapturing those carefree days of one’s youth. It is because of this that veteran blazers are brought out year after year. Threadbare, stained and patched, they are in themselves tokens of the heroic sporting achievements of yore, the physical embodiment of past virility.

Some clubs take this to extremes. Retiring members of the leading Dutch university crews, for example, pass on their blazers to freshmen. The blazers themselves may by tradition be patched and repaired only if the crew wins the Dutch varsity race, so some garments can look appallingly shabby, and yet they are regarded with immense pride. Blazers worn by the current crews of ASR Nereus, the Amsterdam Student Rowing Club, date from as far back as the Forties, the name labels sewn inside them showing the history of their ownership.

While collectively raising our boaters to the Dutch, I don’t think we Brits would take things quite that far. That said, one might detect a notable preponderance of yellowish-looking cream blazers adorning the more elderly members of the Stewards’ Enclosure.

So when should blazers be worn and when should they not appear? It is usually upon joining a particular club or being selected to row with a particular crew that an oarsman becomes eligible to purchase or acquire his blazer. This might then be worn at club events such as cocktail parties and boat club dinners – when the blazer makes a pleasant replacement for a dinner jacket if worn with black tie. In these days of equality, it is also interesting to see members of women’s crews at social events proudly wearing club blazers over their evening frocks.

Regattas are the perfect place to parade one’s club colours, though there is perhaps something of a sliding scale. The full formality of blazer, tie and headgear would, of course, be appropriate for Henley but it might be reasonable to use the blazer as part of a more “dressed down” assemblage at lesser events. It was a little disappointing, however, not to see more club blazers in the stands at Eton Dorney in 2012 for the Olympic regatta.

The dress code for the Stewards’ Enclosure is legendary and must be followed to the letter. Ladies’ skirts must be below the knee –and always are – although the rules do not define the nature of the fabric involved. I have seen some breathtaking creations over the years that leave little to the imagination as to what the wearer has on underneath. So far as gentlemen are concerned, it matters not whether their blazer is straight from the workshop of Collier & Robinson or 70 years old and hanging off the back of a young Dutchman – a jacket is a jacket and jackets must be worn.


Henley Royal Regatta, Thursday July 2, 2009. Because of warm weather, the stewards of the regatta gave permission for male spectators within the Stewards’ Enclosure to remove their jackets. The last time that happened was in 1976.

Except on two occasions. The first I recall vividly. It was at the height of that long, hot summer of ’76. The sun was beating down upon the enclosure, there was not the slightest breath of wind and the perspiration was running down the faces of the great and good of the rowing world. An announcement came across the public address system to the effect that, in the light of the extreme temperatures, the Stewards had decided that “gentlemen may remove their jackets”, whereupon a mighty roar of approval went up from the stands. The announcer paused for effect, before adding, “but not their ties.” There was an even louder groan that must have been heard across the river at the Phyllis Court Club. I was young. I had only just been awarded my club blazer. I kept it on.

Henley Royal Regatta takes place from 2 to 6 July at Henley-on-Thames, Berkshire.