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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.

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.

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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.

1912 henley royal regatta

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

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The Union Boat Club rowing team. Image via UBC.

The henley shirt was also coming to popularity at the dawn of the 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.

Today, you can find henleys at nearly every major retailer. A few of our favorite henley brands include Homespun (pictured above), Merz B. Schwanen, and Shuttle Notes.

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A Shuttle Notes cashmere blend henley. Image via Unionmade.

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A Merz B. Schwanen henley. Image via Red Wing Amsterdam.