Jack Carlson put on his first rowing jacket in 2004. His prep school, on the banks of Boston’s Charles River, sent a team to compete in the world’s biggest crew event and he had to be traditionally attired. It was a preppy right of passage and, as a serious preppy, he approached it seriously.
"The crew was going to be racing at the Henley Royal Regatta in England—kind of the Wimbledon of rowing [Ed. Note: You might remember it as the Winklevii twins' star-turn on The Social Network]—and so we had jackets made up,” he remembers. "I remember walking over to the Andover Shop in Cambridge—the most traditional of old school New England tailor shops—one day after practice with the rest of the crew. We approached the occasion with disproportionate solemnity and smugness. The smugness quickly wore off when we flew to England and got knocked out in the first round.”
Carlson, who would go on to represent America at the World Rowing Championship and race for Oxford at Henley, was an eighth grader when he got that first coat, but the experience clearly stuck with him. Today, he studies anthropology at Oxford and rows the Thames. He intends for his new book “Rowing Blazers” to introduce Americans to a singular type of fashion statement. As cultural signifiers and uniforms, the jackets are historically interesting. As apparel, they’re often ridiculous.
“That’s certainly part of the point,” he says. "They are badges of honor, and they are a visual way of showing who's in and who's out.”
What makes the jackets interesting is that no one can go out and buy them. In an era when new money and foreign students are pouring into England, there are only a few privileges still reserved for the well-to-do achievers who once ruled Oxford and Cambridge. “It’s something you have to earn,” says Carlson, someone who did just that.
At Oriel, one of Oxford University’s more prestigious colleges, wearing a rowing jacket is a big deal. The team has dominated intra-university competition for 40 years. That means that the guys rocking the tired looking white blazers are the big men on campus. They don’t wash out the lipstick stains.
University of London-
Why do University of London rowers wear purple? No one really knows. But the club retains a bit of an upstart identity – as far as a crew team can have an upstart identity – by wearing blazers with mismatched coat of arms and bindings. That pretty much makes these guys rebels.
Goldie is Cambridge’s “B” Squad, the guys that didn’t quite make the cut. Named for legendary stroke John Goldie, who’s names the pound jackets reference, the team takes itself a little less seriously – that’s the only way to make sense of the hat.
Oxford University Boat Club-
The Oxford boys wore dark blue for the first race at Henley, won, and decided to never take it off. To be eligible to wear the blazer, men of Oxford need to pass the Fulham Wall, which sits a mile into the 4.5 mile course at Henley.
University of Bristol-
The blazer rules at Bristol are stringent. If you haven’t raced at Henley or performed “extraordinary service,” you don’t get to don the white, black and red. You might get to wear the tie, but – let’s face it – that tie isn’t ready to go its own way.
Cambridge University Boat Club-
After losing the first Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race at Henley in 1829, Cambridge’s rowers regrouped for the next year. They won the second contest with a blue ribbon tied around the bow of their boat and that’s been their color ever since. It’s no coincidence that it’s identical to the color flown by Eton, the tony boarding school many of the pullers attended.
Known as “The Black Death," the oarsmen from this small club on the banks of the Thames in Surrey have an international reputation. The most intimidating guy on board? Andy Triggs-Hodge, the two-time Olympic Gold Medalist (who looks a little less terrifying when he’s wearing his Beetlejuice-style blazer).
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