Is Rowing Only for the Rich? A Henley Winner Weighs In.

Our recent report on the Henley Royal Regatta sparked a serious debate about class and style. One commenter’s position that “people should know their place” in regards to attending and dressing for such high-end events struck a chord in particular. Which led us to wonder whether Henley and its ilk are really the bastions of unrepentant snobbery that some make them out to be. Many seem to be of the opinion that rowing is only for the rich, and that the “ridiculous” blazers worn by rowers and clubmen are merely a way of rubbing the proles’ noses in it. So we decided to ask Jack Carlson (photographed above by Jason Varney) to stick an oar in.

A three-time member of the U.S. national rowing team, Carlson has won the Henley Royal Regatta, the Head of the Charles Regatta, and the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. A native of Boston, he first began his rowing career as a coxswain at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols school in Cambridge, Mass., which was the first American high school to win at Henley in 1929. Last year he published Rowing Blazers, a gorgeous paean to the flamboyant garments that have occasioned so much criticism, with photography by F.E. Castleberry of Unabashedly Prep. Oh, and he also has a degree from Georgetown and a Ph.D. in archaeology from Oxford.


From Rowing Blazers by Jack Carlson. Copyright Carlson Media Inc. All rights reserved.

“The rowing blazer is designed to impress, intimidate, and influence in a game of sartorial one-upmanship,” Carlson tells ACL. “But it’s not about anything so mundane as socioeconomic class; it’s about letting other rowers and cognoscenti know what one has achieved in the sport and where one’s loyalties lie. Like the court liveries and heraldic devices of medieval Europe, the street gang colors of Compton, and the patches and badges of Boy Scouts and Hell’s Angels, rowing blazers are tribal totems, ceremonial vestments worn to emphasize both difference and belonging within their own little world.” (Ed. note – unless you have just bought yours on sale at Ralph Lauren.)

edited Jack Carlson_1056 FINAL Credit Jason Varney (1) (2)

Regarding the controversial clothing, Carlson says: “The stripes, badges and binding might not be to everyone’s taste; but the rowing blazer isn’t about taste. And it’s certainly not about provoking comment-board class-warriors or drawing lines between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’” The first blazers worn by college rowing clubs at Oxford and Cambridge in the mid-19th century “served a practical purpose,” he notes, “keeping oarsmen warm during chilly training sessions. [But] even in this formative period, rowers seem to have developed a peculiar attachment to their jackets, not only wearing them in the boats but also incorporating them into their daily dress on terra firma.”


From Rowing Blazers by Jack Carlson. Copyright Carlson Media Inc. All rights reserved.

These rowers were “the world’s first true student-athletes,” Carlson says. “And like their successors–the stereotypical ‘jocks’ of twentieth-century America, who were inseparable from their hard-earned letterman sweaters or leather-sleeved varsity jackets–the earliest oarsmen probably started wearing their prototypical blazers in social settings for the sake of showing off their sporting prowess….The chosen colors and details comprised a code that revealed the college, club, and particular crew with which a rower was affiliated. But the loud colors also served the practical function of helping distant spectators tell which boat was which during races.”


From Rowing Blazers by Jack Carlson. Copyright Carlson Media Inc. All rights reserved.

Rowing blazers today “range from the understated to the absurd, and it is difficult to say which end of the spectrum is more prestigious,” Carlson notes. “Those worn by the top Oxford crew are plain dark blue with matching dark blue grosgrain trim; they do not feature any pocket badge at all, out of respect for the fact that Oxford University Boat Club‘s blazer is the original ‘blue blazer.’ The blazers of the elite and enigmatic Cambridge Archetypals, meanwhile, are striped light blue, magenta, black, red, yellow, and indigo. The club’s ties, socks, caps, scarves, and even watchbands feature the same stripes.”


“Each nation has its own particular set of blazer rituals, which vary, of course, from club to club,” Carlson says. “In Britain, rowing blazers are de rigueur battle gear at riotous boat club dinners, garden parties, and traditional regattas. American oarsmen usually earn their coveted jackets only by winning a domestic championship or at the end of an undefeated regular season, when the crew will have blazers made up before heading across the Atlantic to compete at the Henley Royal Regatta. And in the Netherlands, rowing blazers are usually passed down from one generation of rowers to the next; they are almost universally ill fitting, threadbare, and filthy.” Now that must really have the hoi polloi scratching their heads.

Comments on “Is Rowing Only for the Rich? A Henley Winner Weighs In.

    BlueTrain on August 14, 2015 11:23 AM:

    I’ve known one competitive rower (Naval Academy) who was even in our wedding. They are by not means necessarily snobbish. However, I will admit that if you do not grow up being familiar with the little details of various sports, like riding, for instance, many things will seem strange. At the same time, some of these things will be outside the scope of many people’s experiences. But my wife’s high school had crew.

    Daniel on August 15, 2015 1:07 PM:

    As somebody who just began to row in a novice class, I can say there really isn’t much inheritantly classist about it. It costs as much as gym membership, and dues help to pay for scholarship rowing classes for low income students. Also rowing is incredibly challenging and fun.

    Jack on August 17, 2015 1:23 AM:

    @Daniel – Maybe it’s just me, but mentioning that your dues “pay for scholarship rowing classes for low income students” makes it seem like you have a certain sense of noblesse oblige.

    Daniel on August 18, 2015 12:57 AM:

    @Jack Well as a low income student myself until a week or two ago, and with my fair share of crippling loan payments, I actually am happy to aknowledge that there are programs out there to justly redistribute my “wealth” to people growing up like I did.

    Jared Paul Stern on August 18, 2015 11:04 AM:

    Olympic rowing gold medalist Martin Cross has also weighed in on this issue in the UK. “British rowing owes as much to its proletarian as its socially elite roots,” he wrote in the London Guardian, noting its “international renaissance was significantly energized in the 1970s by working-class men from the Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club.”

    Mr Brown on August 18, 2015 6:56 PM:

    Comments made previously were about Henley, this piece shifts the debate to rowing in general.
    A rower defending rowing is all very (predictably) good but does nothing to persuade otherwise Henley’s naff status as a celebration of the rightful order.
    Ás someone correctly observed; Tory whopper’s day out.

    Mr Brown on August 19, 2015 4:39 AM:

    PS. Michael – top work coming back to this following the comments that bounced around last time.

    J.S. on August 19, 2015 7:59 AM:

    While rowing itself certainly need not be only for the wealthy (look at all of the community rowing programs now in existence), the affectation that goes along with prep school (US) and club rowing (UK) sartorial rituals have everything to do with the display of wealth and privilege. “The rowing blazer is designed to impress, intimidate, and influence in a game of sartorial one-upmanship,” Carlson tells ACL. “But it’s not about anything so mundane as socioeconomic class” — spoken like a person for whom wealth and status might, in fact, seem mundane rather than urgent. Socioeconomic class has nothing to do with intimidation or influence? Please. One would think a graduate degree from Oxford might afford one some ability to understand, let alone appreciate, the sociopolitical nuances of material culture, sartorial or otherwise.

    Andresito on August 20, 2015 2:10 PM:

    Indeed – I thought at some point during one’s matriculation from Oxford and Georgetown one would presumably learn the art of actually answering the question one is asked!

    Additionally, to assume that one could so easily cleave the sartorial from the socioeconomic (and sociohistoric) – “It’s just a faded salmon polo with the collar popped”), would be to undermine the very thing that one of Mr. Williams’ sponsors sells so powerfully and in such an American, Gatsbyian way – the RL “lifestyle”.

    Surely Mr. Williams knew the answer to his question before he asked it, no?

    Johnny Boy on August 21, 2015 11:29 PM:

    The style certainly not to my taste, but has to be said these chaps looks smart. I can’t say the same about the pimped up blazers and garish trousers in the previous Henley article. The look has a place – in the boathouse or riverside. On the high street or the local pub – thankfully I don’t think it will have many followers. It comes down to taste and opinion at the end of the day. Tomorrow I’ll be attending a function in Edinburgh in full highland dress. I’m sure the Henley types will think I look like twit. Like them though, I’ll be wearing my uniform with pride…

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