The History of the Henley Shirt – Rowing’s Menswear Staple

It may look like a polo or a popover sans collar, but the veritable Henley Shirt has deep roots in the history of menswear. By definition, the henley is a knit shirt with a banded collar and a placket of two or more buttons. They’re most often made of cotton but also seen in synthetics or merino wool.


1912 henley royal regatta

Leander’s eight boat at the 1912 Royal Regatta. Image via Rowing History.

Henleys were first seen in nineteenth-century England, where they were used as men’s undergarments. These undervests, as they were called, were some of the first collarless underwear and were known for being easier to wear and more comfortable, but they soon took hold to a much greater degree as sportswear in the western English town of Henley-on-Thames.


A British undervest from the 1880s. Image via Victoria & Albert Museum.

Since 1839, the town of Henley had been the home of the Royal Regatta, the largest rowing race in all of England. Rowers enjoyed the increased ventilation from the placket and lack of collar and it soon became the standard rowing uniform. The crew racing tradition also contributed to the spread of the shirt, as the losers would typically give their shirts to the winners at the end of a race.


The Union Boat Club rowing team. Image via UBC.

The henley shirt was also becoming popular at the dawn of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and inventions like the cotton gin and water-powered milling allowed for mass production on a scale that had never been seen before.

The henley remained almost exclusively in the realm of sportswear through the early 1970s. By the latter half of the twentieth century, t-shirts had become acceptable casual wear and a buyer for Ralph Lauren saw the henley’s potential as a new kind of t-shirt hybrid after seeing a vintage example.

Henleys Today

The Henley is now seen as a menswear staple after being championed by giants such as Ralph Lauren, Gant, and other household names throughout the late 70s, 80s, and 90s. It’s still common in underwear, but more generally sold as a casual top to be worn a la t-shirt. The rise of the Henley can be epitomized by its use in major Hollywood pictures such as Drive, James Bond: No Time to Die, and John Wick: Chapter 2.

Today, you can find henleys at nearly every major retailer, but here are some that fit into our niche of high-quality, heritage-inspired clothing.

Loop & Weft


Available for $96 from Those That Know.

The Real McCoy’s


Available for $145 from Lost & Found.

Freenote Cloth


Available from REVOLVR for $120.

Iron Heart


Available for $165 from Franklin & Poe.

Pure Blue Japan


Available for $149 at Corlection.

Reigning Champ


Available for $70 from Brooklyn Clothing.



Available for $115 from Revolvr.

Warehouse & Co.



Available for $82 from Corlection.