Don’t be fooled by the full-page color photos by FE Castleberry, the write-ups in the likes of Vanity Fair ,and the big launch party at the new Polo flagship. “Rowing Blazers” is a serious book and a thoughtful appreciation of a trad staple, such as the “Henley” blazer by Ben Silver at left.
Author Jack Carlson begins, in a ten-page introduction, by debunking the story that the blazer “has its origins in the jackets worn by the crew of the HMS Blazer in the mid-nineteenth century.” Instead, he traces the origin of both the word and the article of clothing to the mid-19th-century world of English rowing.
Boating jackets “served a practical purpose, keeping oarsmen warm during chilly training sessions,” while loud colors helped “distant spectators tell which boat was which during races.” Indeed, in the first-known use of “blazer” in reference to clothing, in 1852, “the vivid scarlet boating coats of Lady Margaret Boat Club at St. John’s College, Cambridge, were nicknamed ‘blazers’ on account of their ‘blazing red’ hue.”
True sartorial scholars can consult a two-page bibliography (which suggests that it’s not even an exhaustive list of source materials). It lists everything from Bruce Boyer’s 2010 Rake article on “The Perfect Blazer,” to, of course, “The Official Preppy Handbook,” to “Notes on the Word Blazer” (Cambridge Review, 1950), to Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog).”
But the bulk of the book are 200-plus pages of photos and descriptions of the rowing blazers of schools and clubs in the US, the UK, the Netherlands and beyond. Some are blazing red, others dark blue. Some have loud stripes, others elegant crests.
But it’s not just a menagerie of preening preppies, and if you consign “Rowing Blazers” to the fate of most coffee-table books – to sit prettily on a pile of others and be perused absent-mindedly during the cocktail hour – you’ll miss some good anecdotes.
For example, the colors of Georgetown University were actually first selected by its Boat Club in 1876. As the Georgetown College Journal reported at the time, “These gentlemen have decided on Blue and Gray as appropriate colors for the Club and expressive of the feeling of unity that exists between the Northern and Southern boys of the College.”
Carlson even goes beyond blazers to other accessories. It turns out that that the traditional knit varsity tie with horizontal stripes – once common “at many New England universities and boarding schools” – was revived at Groton School in 2012, thanks to a student from Milan “who just happened to know a little workshop in Italy that could make them.”
Such colorful photos and histories got me thinking about the regular old blue blazer hanging in my closet. The rowing jacket that comes closest is that of the Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC): dark blue, with a dark blue grosgrain trim and Roman galleys on the gold buttons. These blazers are known simply as “Blues.”
In such simplicity lies the versatility of the blue blazer. “Wear it with Oxford shoes, deck shoes, or no shoes; with gray flannels, white ducks, blue jeans, or Nantucket reds; at Christmastime or on halcyon summer days,” Carlson writes. “A blazer is almost always the ‘right’ thing to wear; it is no wonder that the famous ‘Official Preppy Handbook’ referred to the blazer simply as ‘the exoskeleton.’”
Versatility and longevity: I’m 37 years old, and I’m on only my second blue blazer since middle school. I was a little sad four years ago when I realized that my old one, with crossed golf clubs on the gold buttons, had gotten too shiny at the elbows. I’m not a rower, but I too have a sense of (personal) history: I had worn this blazer to high-school dances in the early 90s, to my first real job interview in New York in 1999 and the night in DC in 2008 when I first met my wife. “It is astonishing what the sight of a Blues blazer can do to many a sensible, well-adjusted girl,” reads the quotation at the start of the section on the Oxford University Boat Club. Quite. — MATTHEW BENZ