Delightful While It Lasts: Inside Henley’s Stewards’ Enclosure

Perhaps, in some dystopian future, strange people (such as Ivy Style readers) who do not want to wear shirts that ’T’, pants that ‘sweat’ and shoes that ‘sneak’, will be placed in confined areas so as not to shock the majority of the population, that is those whose clothing style resembles homeless teenage skateboarders on dress-down Friday. Something like this already happens in the historic town of Henley-on-Thames, 40 miles southwest of London, England, for five days at the end of June every year. The so-called ‘Stewards’ Enclosure’ of the annual Henley Royal Regatta is one of the few places left where a man can dress elegantly without arousing glances, curiosity, derision or scorn from those around him. While it is possible for anyone to watch the famous rowing event over most of the 1 1/3 mile course dressed in casual clothing, for the members of the Stewards’ Enclosure and their guests, the rules are clear and unbending:

Gentlemen are required to wear lounge suits, or jackets or blazers with flannels, together with a tie or cravat (US: ascot). Ladies are required to wear dresses or skirts with a hemline below the knee. Ladies will not be admitted wearing divided skirts, culottes or trousers of any kind. The use of mobile telephones for making or receiving calls is not permitted within the Stewards’ Enclosure. 

The spectators at Henley must be the best-dressed sports fans to be found anywhere, entirely appropriate to the regatta’s beautiful and luxuriant valley setting. The temple-like building at the top right is a ‘folly’ built in 1771 and sited on a small island by the start.

Many regard competitive rowing (or ‘crew’ as it is known in the US) as the most ‘Preppy’ or ‘Ivy’ of sports and, on both sides of the Atlantic, it is unfairly but commonly associated only with old,  prestigious universities and with exclusive, fee-paying schools.

It is very telling that, from its start in 1839 until the 1970s, Henley Regatta did not have a dress code. In times now gone forever, people of all social classes could be relied upon to dress appropriately for any occasion without being prompted, directed or forced.

Two effortlessly stylish former oarsmen observe the racing at Henley Royal Regatta. The gentleman on the left is wearing what is arguably the original ‘blue blazer’, that awarded to those who row for Oxford University against Cambridge University in the annual boat race held since 1829. His cerise socks and tie indicate membership of Leander, a prestigious rowing club founded in 1818.

This gentleman’s blazer indicates that he rowed for Cambridge University in the annual race against Oxford University. Tradition demands that it is never cleaned. The cap is of ‘The Archetypals’, a Cambridge oarsmen’s club. Doubtful legend has it that, to join, you have to row in the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race three times, get a third in your university degree (effectively a fail), and spent three nights in Cambridge jail.

On the left, the cap and blazer of London Rowing Club, and on the right, the blazer of Thames Rowing Club in the short, ‘Bolero’ style favoured by women (and male fashion victims). The young woman is aware that her dress length will exclude her from the Stewards’ Enclosure, even though the outfit has a simple elegance.

When Henley imposed rules on dress in the 1970s, the self-elected group of ex-rowers that run the regatta (‘The Stewards’) were simply attempting to maintain their idea of minimum standards, they were not interested in imposing any ideas of ‘taste’ or ‘style’ on people. This is fortunate for, while the ubiquitous blue blazer is the safe and smart choice for many men attending Henley, for others the summer regatta is an opportunity to don something a little brighter than normal. Indeed, many have little choice in sporting rather flamboyant garments as they will be wearing the blazer of their own particular rowing club.

The black and white stripe blazers are of Molesey Boat Club, the purple is of Durham University Boat Club (a colour that they describe as ‘Platinate’) and the light blue is Cambridge University Boat Club.

The classic blue blazer (usually worn with a rowing club tie) is always a good choice, as these floating spectators demonstrate.

Some club blazers are very conservative, perhaps a result of history and tradition, but a few are apparently deliberately tasteless, seemingly inspired by the casual union of a rather louche parrot and a particularly vulgar peacock. If these can be worn with a tie and headgear that boast of other rowing connections but whose colours or patterns produce a three-way mismatch, so much the better. I suspect that the delight in this conscious bad taste has its origins in the days up to the 1960s when many British men took any opportunity to rebel when convention said that they had to spend the working week in dark suit, black shoes, white shirt and sober tie.

In recent years, a few young rowers have adopted colourful ‘club trousers’ to go with their club blazers. These black, white and red versions are in the colours of Thames Rowing Club. From Go-To-Hell Pants to Go-To-Henley Pants?

The true club blazer is not a tailored garment as it has its origins in the mid-nineteenth century as a warm-up jacket, effectively a Victorian hoodie. To quote Jack Carlson, author of Rowing Blazers:

It was a casual piece of clothing oarsmen at Oxford and Cambridge would throw on to go down to training; there was no cotton jersey and certainly no technical fabric, so wool flannel it was.  But these jackets were unlined in the back……. ventless and soft-shouldered.  Because they were also some of the earliest sporting club uniforms, they were often made in bright colours or stripes, or with contrast binding, and made reference collegiate heraldry with their badges and buttons.

Jack Carlson is now manufacturing high-quality blazers for rowing clubs and also for the fashion market. Wonderfully, they are made in Manhattan, not Macau. Here he is in his Henley ‘pop-up shop’ and the rare 8×2 blazer that he is wearing is also one of his designs. Christian Chensvold interviewed Jack about the project back in May.

As many club blazers were originally purchased when the wearer was a young and fit athlete, many years and many midriff inches later, the jackets are often a tight fit. The patrician can sometimes add to this crime against tailoring by their love of apparently worn-out clothing. It is, however, the students from some Dutch university rowing clubs that put on what must be the ultimate display of sprezzatura or ‘Boston cracked shoe’.

Members of the Dutch student club, Nereus, proudly display the blazers that they have inherited from former members of their club and which they, in turn, will pass on. Each owner stitches his name inside the jacket but repairs are forbidden until damage renders the garment unwearable. There is, however, no excuse that allows for cleaning them.

On the right, a member of ‘Okeanos’ from Amsterdam has put on his multi-inherited blazer to collect a prestigious Henley trophy.

While many men in the Stewards’ Enclosure seem to relish the opportunity that the dress code gives them (with surprisingly few crossing the line into ‘costume’), some women have difficulty with the requirement that dress and skirt hemlines should be ‘below the knee’. I am sure that the Stewards do not have an objection to female knees as such, it is just the simplest way to attempt to maintain ‘a level of dignity’. As a politically incorrect former Chairman of the Regatta once put it:

If you go with fashion you get middle-aged women showing thighs that should have been kept secret for years. What is the next stage? You start having people stripping to the waist because it’s hot. It will begin to look like…… Wimbledon (Tennis Championships); God forbid we should get down to their level.

In the foreground, ‘effort’, in the background, ‘elegance’.

The same Chairman explained the philosophy of those who are in charge of a regatta that is run with English-style eccentricity but German-style efficiency:

There are occasions when we deliberately do not move with the times because we enjoy being different, but underneath all of that, we actually have quite a good idea of what is desirable for the regatta ….. It is unfashionable these days to have people who believe that they know what is best and are not subject to everyone else telling them what they ought to do… the unique thing about the regatta is that it is still run and controlled entirely by the Stewards… We take the view that if people do not like the regatta that we provide….. then (we do not care) if they do not come…. It’s not democratic at all…

This young man from Gonzaga College High School, Washington DC, is clearly enjoying the requirement to dress smartly.

Perhaps the most interesting and, indeed, heartening aspect of all this is the reaction of many of the high school and college rowers and their supporters from Europe and North America: they actually enjoy ‘dressing up’ and putting on a blazer, shirt and tie. The occasion gives them licence to dress smartly without fear of being mocked by their contemporaries. Sadly, once away from the rarefied atmosphere of Henley Regatta, real life takes over again and the young (and not-so-young) succumb to peer pressure to don jeans and t-shirts, the drab uniform inexplicably adopted around the world. However, like an English summer, the elegance of Henley’s Stewards’ Enclosure is delightful for the short period that it lasts. — TIM KOCH

Tim Koch has been involved in rowing for 30 years: ten as a rower, ten as a coxswain, and nearly ten as a writer and photographer on the sport. He is a member of the Stewards’ Enclosure of Henley Royal Regatta, Leander Club, and Auriol Kensington Rowing Club. He previously wrote for Ivy Style on Ken and Barbie, the Ivy years. 

25 Comments on "Delightful While It Lasts: Inside Henley’s Stewards’ Enclosure"

  1. Charlottesville | July 11, 2017 at 11:33 am |

    Delightful indeed! Thank you, Mr. Koch, for your amusing, well written and well-illustrated article. I have never been to Henley, but once attended a Regatta on the Potomac in Washington, D.C., hosted by Georgetown University. Alas, the Georgetown Stewards, if such there were, did not maintain the same level of sartorial decorum. Outside of a few horseraces, I am unaware of any sporting event in this country that comes anywhere close to attracting a dressy crowd, but perhaps other commenters can offer examples.

  2. Roger C. Russell II | July 11, 2017 at 1:02 pm |

    In reflecting on what sporting events people dress up for I would agree with the prior post. I do not believe I have seen any formality with the exception to some derby races I have attended. I do know that this formality is not contained for just the Kentucky Derby because most people dress up for the Arkansas Derby as well.
    My parents and grandparents tell me stories of dressing up for travel I assume prior to the middle 1960’s.

  3. Up at Saratoga, some people dress up for the Travers Stakes, but most people don’t. Many women use the Travers as an opportunity to sport fanciful and elaborate hats. I’m not sure where that tradition came from.

  4. Ah, the British! Why we LOVE them so much, why we emulate them and why period British dramas are SO popular here across the pond. Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs.

    Secretly, or not so secretly, we all want to be part of that rarified world of the British aristocracy. The landed gentry never looked so appealing and nostalgia never looked so good!

  5. Maybe, someone can enlighten me. How can a blazer become so tattered as the striped example, third picture from the bottom? Or the filthy lapels, as the older gent wearing the light green coat?

    They must give the coats to puppies to drag around, in order to get the desired degree of dirt and tatter.

    My dear departed girl, Wriggles, could definitely do the job.

  6. This post makes me want to re-read my P.G. Wodehouse library. Drones Club, Boat Race Night and all that sort of thing, what?


  7. Charlottesville | July 11, 2017 at 5:07 pm |

    I’m with you, Will. I re-read at least a couple of Wodehouse books every year, and they never fail to make me smile, and even laugh out loud. I just bought a nonfiction book on English country houses between the wars. Haven’t started it yet, but it looks promising.

    Cameron and Roger — I note that the Virginia Gold Cup in The Plains and our local Foxfield races draw a fair number of blazered men and women in sundresses and hats. Not Ascot, of course, but it will have to do.

  8. What a wonderful article with accompanying photos! While the same formality is most certainly not there in America’s counterparts to the Henley regatta, perhaps the author could do a similar piece on the Head of the Charles, the annual regatta in Cambridge? I do remember from attending in the late 80’s/early 90’s more than a few vivid examples of trad style!

  9. By Cambridge, I of course mean “Hah-vahd.”

  10. To Cort: “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.” ― W. Somerset Maugham

  11. Nothing to do with blazers, but the best Henley story is about Jack Kelly (Grace’s father) who was banned from Henley during the era when it was considered the de facto world championship. Their amateur code prohibited anyone who had worked in a trade from competing alongside the gentlemen, and Kelly had worked as a bricklayer in Philadelphia. The stewards also suspected he would beat the best English rowers. Kelly went to the Olympics instead, and won gold. Years later they changed the rules and invited Princess Grace to Henley to hand out awards.

  12. @Jim:
    Indeed! There is nothing better that a proper English fryup -anytime of the day or night!

  13. The London Rowing Club cap was made famous by club member (and Henley competitor) Graham Hill, who replicated the pattern on the headgear he wore in his day job as a Formula 1 driver.

  14. Caustic Man | July 11, 2017 at 8:55 pm |

    One of the best pieces I’ve read here yet. Well done!

  15. My thanks to those who posted kind comments about my Henley Regatta piece.

    Cort: Yes, British period or ‘country house’ dramas are very popular, particularly in the US. This is a little strange as they show an unmeritocratic world where everyone knows their place and should not attempt to rise above it – very unAmerican. My butler agrees with me (but, I suppose, he has to).

    Jim: The Head of the Charles is not without its rowing blazers (though usually without shirt and tie) and it is an event that intend to see one day. It would also be a chance to trawl the thrift shops of Boston for Ivy treasures.

    HG, I have previously written at length about the Kelly family and Henley:

    Matt, my take on Graham Hill and rowing is here:

    Sacksuit and Charlottesville, PG Wodehouse, did write something about rowing. In “Joy in the Morning’, Bertie Wooster says about his schoolfriend G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright:

    (Stilton’s) entire formative years…. had been spent in dipping an oar into the water, giving it a shove and hauling it out again. Only a pretty dumb brick would fritter away his golden youth doing that sort of thing.

  16. Interesting sidebar….The “Henley” ( I have several) is a popular crewneck shirt – long or short sleeved – with 3 or 4 vertical buttons, closely spaced from the neck down. The name derives from the shirts – worn by the first 19th century rowers – in this Regatta.

  17. I enjoyed the article.

    The attendees at the regattas here are usually dressed in “athleisure” wear. Many readers might be surprised, but football games at Southern universities often include a “stewards enclosure.” It is the greek portion of the student section and the tents on the lawn with the alumni. The “fans” are of course attired in matching t-shirts and often have the school mascot on their cheeks.

  18. Steward’s Enclosure, yes. Anyplace where I don’t have to listen to people ask whether I wouldn’t be more comfortable if I removed my jacket and tie.

  19. JLH,

    Not an alumnus myself, but I’m told by a friend who attended Ole Miss that it was unacceptable for a young man to sit in the student section at a football game without a jacket and tie. He went on to become a bow-tie wearing, Federalist Society type, so who knows if the dress code was enforced only among his clique or student-body wide. I prefer to think it was the latter, and I’ve heard similar tales about UVA and Vanderbilt, but perhaps its all just more of this #fakenews I keep hearing about.

  20. Tim, thanks very much for pointing me to your excellent write-up about the Kellys at Henley.

  21. The Durham colour is actually Palatinate not “Platinate” – see here for an explanation:

  22. The gentleman wearing the cerise tie and socks is not sporting the Oxford Blue Boat blazer. He is wearing the blazer of First and Third Trinity BC, Cambridge. There are differences, but a real clue is that he is also wearing Ist & 3rd trousers!

  23. lwtemmabird – Sorry, I missed an ‘a’, I am an rse.

    Remiger – Thank you for that, I will have insulted a Cambridge man by suggesting that he went to arch rival, Oxford. Checking with Jack Carlson’s ‘Rowing Blazers’ book, it seems that members of ‘First and Third Trinity Boat Club’ who row in the intra-university races known as the ‘May Bumps’ get to wear a blazer identical to the Oxford one, except for the buttons. This is not popular with some Cambridge men who could wear it, so they choose instead the blazer awarded for the races called ‘Lent Bumps’, which is blue with a blue and gold trim. There is a doubtful story that Oxford must ask Trinity permission to wear their blazer each year. Jack does not mention the boat club trousers (pants) though.

  24. The Ist & 3rd first May boat blazer is not identical to the OUBC blazer. The Trinity ribbon is broader and positioned conventionally on the sleeves ( i.e. abt 5″ up the sleeve. – the Oxford blazer is trimmed at the sleeve end).

    OUBC used to ask permission of 1st&3rd to use datk blue as their colour. Unfortunately, a Trinity Captain of Boats gave them leave to use it in perpetuity.

    Four Cambridge college boat clubs have boat club trousers.

  25. Simply fantastic! I absolutely loved this article.

    We have rowing clubs here in St. Louis, but the waters must be shared with an influx of aggressive Asian Carp:

Comments are closed.