Immodesty Blaze: On Blazers, Rowing, And Well Adjusted Girls

173j_R_1b9a4214Don’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

32 Comments on "Immodesty Blaze: On Blazers, Rowing, And Well Adjusted Girls"

  1. References to the blazer’s origins serving a “…practical purpose,” or helping, “…distant spectators tell which boat was which during races,” seem fairly authorial. Does anyone (or does the author) have an OED style record of the first time the article of clothing appears in print? Thanks -Jonathan

  2. Bags' Groove | October 10, 2014 at 3:22 pm |

    So it appears that the vanguard movement in blazers was in dear old Blighty, as has been the case with many matters sartorial; though not Ivy, of course.
    And have to say that the little rowing ensemble above is the most stylish I’ve seen in not a little while. Full marks, Ben Silver.

  3. According to the OED, the first use of the word “blazer” with this particular meaning was in 1880. The citation shows the word in quotation marks, probably indicating that that particular use wasn’t quite mainstream at that point.

  4. And I should note that having a copy of the OED is one of the reasons that a co-worker noted that me and another woman at work perfectly fit the stereotype of the overly-educated, white New Englanders. I think they might have mentioned something about clothing, too.

  5. @Im

    I for one am grateful to Jewish tailors/haberdashers and overly-educated white New Englanders for perpetuating Ivy League/Trad style.

  6. A.E.W. Mason | October 11, 2014 at 1:04 am |

    By the way, as usual, the tweeds offered in the rest of the Ben Silver catalogue this fall are particularly fine.

    The Rowing Blazer book is making the rounds at all the local book stores in town. Problem is — and I stress this is only a personal reaction — looking at an entire book of nothing but rowing blazers is like eating an entire bag of gummy bears in one sitting.

  7. @Jonathan – The first known written use of the word blazer dates to 1852, where it appears (in quotation marks) in the Cambridge University Almanack & Register referring to the coats worn by Lady Margaret Boat Club. In the course of my research for the book, I had the privilege of seeing this firsthand in the Wren Library in Cambridge. The book, of course, discusses the origins of the garment and the word in greater depth. I am the author, but I can assure that the discussion in the book is not (merely) authorial!

    @Matthew – Cheers for the thoughtful review and for acknowledging the seriousness of the research behind the book (an aspect of the book that has not been highlighted in most of the press!)

    — Jack

  8. @JLC,

    Why not submit that to the OED? They actively encourage submissions of this sort of information, and contributing to the OED is something that many people would love to be able to do.

  9. @A.E.W. Mason You can only stare at a wearable rainbow for so long.

  10. Roy R. Platt | October 11, 2014 at 10:58 am |


    Was it the Abridged Oxford English Dictionary (the version that has UK words, spelling, and definitions) or was it the abridged American language version of the OED (the version that has American words, spelling, and definitions)?

    People sometimes confuse the two very different dictionaries and sometimes forget that the most complete (UK) definitions are in the Unabridged OED, which, with all the volumes stacked up, is taller than some of us posting here.

  11. That was from the unabridged second edition, the big twenty-volume set. Stacked up it’s a bit shy of four feet. I probably only refer to it a few times per year, but that’s more often than I look at any other book that I have. I used to collect books, and although the OED may not be the rarest book or the most expensive book in my collection, it’s definitely the coolest.

  12. Reactionary Trad | October 11, 2014 at 1:40 pm |

    For me a blazer is solid navy, period.
    I can’t imagine wearing one in any other solid color, let alone one with awning stripes.

  13. A.E.W. Mason….

    Like eating an entire bag of gummy bears in one sitting!


  14. I think Ben Silver sources a lot of their Harris Tweed from Carloway, Hattersley Loom weavers. Single width cloth. Tends be lighter weight. It feels (to my hand) like a heavier Shetland.

    For years they’ve looked to Robert Noble. Lovat Mill receives a mention in this year’s catalog.

    The cottage guild weavers are still doing their thing, but the market has dried up here in the states. I think Southwick turn to Robert Noble and Magee and, for Harris, (probably?) Harris Tweed Hebrides.

    In the world of blazers, the big news is the release of Harrison’s “Archive Flannel.” Two shades of navy among the (small) lot.

  15. S.E.
    Who makes the heavy tweeds of the past, the tweed sports coats one could wear on a cold day with just a scarf. I miss them, they were indestructible..

  16. Islay Mill. They weave tweed as robust as Islay whiskey.

    And then there’s Knockando. It’s a safe guess they weave W. Bill’s heavier cheviot tweeds.

    And then there’s Glenlyon.

    For the lighter weight Shetlands, Breanish and Jamieson’s. And Lovat. And Hunters of Brora.

  17. Truth be known, this is the heyday for anybody who knows a good tailor. Order the cloth direct from the mill (no middle man or broker fees). The choices are plentiful. What was once known and available only to the cloth buyers at the better retail shops is now ‘out there’ on the market.

  18. Knockando is also a fantastic single malt, as is its similarly named cousin anCnoc

  19. @DCG Is Knockando available in the USA? Have not seen it in years?

    On the subject of blue blazers, I wonder if I was the only one who felt selling a blue blazer was a happy and sad day. Happy because it is a sale. Sad because if you sold the customer the right blazer he would not be back to buy another one for about 20 years.

  20. Chris I haven’t seen it here, probably a way to order it online though

  21. @C. Sharp

    One can never have too many blue blazers.

  22. @DCG thanks and thanks for the tip on the anCnon.

    @Camford appreciate the positive attitude.

  23. True about owning a multitude of blazers. Such a useful piece. And versatile. Probably overused by men who ought to be wearing a suit more often, but, well.

    The serge vs. hopsack debate rages on.

  24. I’m afraid that I actually own only a single blazer, although I have a
    few random sport coats. I just don’t find many situations where a
    blazer is a better alternative to a suit. Suits, after all, can range
    from very casual to very formal, and can pretty much be a perfect fit
    for any occasion that you can think of. And while women often swoon
    over men in suits, I just don’t see the same reaction to men wearing a
    blazer. (This assumes that you’re not in college any more. Back then,
    a blazer did the trick.)

    This is from the point of view of a successful, middle-aged man who
    wants to look like a successful, middle-aged man, of course. I didn’t
    always think this way.

    Despite all that, I’m actually wearing a blazer right now.

  25. The strangest sight. Last week. (this, I promise, is apropos the subject at hand).

    College town. Khaki knee length skirt. Flaired. Brown Topsiders. Button down oxford. Navy blazer. Long hair, pony tail.

    I’m guessing she was a senior. Think Smith College ’83.

    Are we seeing a slow, steady return to 80s style ?!?

  26. Early 80s, I mean.

  27. Think “nice” high school girls from the 60s.

  28. @JLC & lm: Thank you for the solid responses. I’ll have to take a look at the book when I have a chance!

  29. S.E.,

    I think that you just caught sight of the right type of girl. They are still around. They just aren’t as common as they used to b, but if you look in the right places they are still there.

  30. Shakespeare said “…the apparel oft proclaims the man”.

    The right type of man/woman wears the right type of apparel, and we know what the right type is.

  31. Nick Willard | October 17, 2014 at 2:16 pm |

    Speaking of rowing and girls, I’d say that this video has a number of well-adjusted girls:

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