Every year, an end-of-June walk along the Henley tow path gives rise to a spectacle of ultimate rowing prowess. A place where rowers from all over the world, amateur to elite, compete for the famous Henley Royal Regatta trophies on offer.
Off the water is always a sight to behold. Spectators wear an array of floral prints, hats, and chinos, clutching glasses of Pimm's all the while representing their allegiance through the rowing blazer.
This must-have piece of apparel, donned by rowers worldwide, has a humble origin. According to Jack Carlson, the founder of Rowing Blazers, the word itself came into use back in 1825; originating from the Lady Margaret Boat Club of Cambridge where members wore bright ‘blazing’ red cloth. Initially the blazer was a basic necessity with the thick material offering much needed warmth during brisk early morning training sessions.
However, there is some consternation about this origin story. Another story notes earlier usage with the name deriving from the ship, the HMS Blazer (interestingly named after a dog in George Spenser’s foxhound pack). The crew of this navy vessel wore blue and white striped jackets, which wearers began to refer as “blazers”. It was then, in the second half of the 1800’s, that university rowers started to wear loose-fitting jackets what we would now identify as the classic blazer.
Much like today’s blazers, they were unique to each club, with bright and sometimes extravagant designs enabling spectators to easily identify crews out on the water. With time, and as training kit improved, the rowing blazer moved away from its humble beginnings and became a symbol of athletic accomplishment across college grounds.
Towards the end of the 19th Century this fashion phenomenon was adopted by more and more sports with members of rugby to croquet clubs using the blazer to represent their athletes’ loyalty. At the same time, in the US, universities such as Harvard and Yale finalised their own designs to be worn by their athletes and affiliates whilst off the water.
The right to pull on one’s club blazer range from the simple prerequisite of being a member, to those that require proof of hard work and oarsmanship. Some clubs necessitate an individual to attain an undefeated season, or the winning of a championship, to be seen worthy to don the club colours. In the Netherlands a more bizarre ritual sees the blazer passed down to the next generation of rower with it not permitted to be washed until the Varsity is won.
No matter what accomplishments are required in order to pull on a blazer, any rower showcasing their club do so with a sense of pride and unity with their crew for whom they train so hard to represent.