The Ultimate British Fashion Statement Isn’t For Sale

At England’s most prestigious universities, the big men on campus wear rowing blazers. Seriously.
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At England’s most prestigious universities, the big men on campus wear rowing blazers. Seriously.

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.

Photos by Matt Cardy / Getty Images