The History of the Henley
By definition, a henley is a collarless knit shirt with a placket of two or more buttons down the front. They were first worn in the early nineteenth century as a modified men’s undergarment. Since they lacked a collar and were looser fitting in the chest, they were more comfortable than traditional undershirts.
Henleys were first seen in nineteenth-century England, where they were used as men’s undergarments. These undervests, as they were called, were some of the first collarless underwear and were known for being easier to wear and more comfortable.
So how did a loose-fitting undergarment become a staple of men and women’s fashion? It began with the sport of rowing and the English town of Henley.
Since 1839, Henley-on-the-Thames has been the venue for the Henley Royal Regatta. This rowing event was one of the first organized rowing events in British history. And it continues to this day as a big deal in the English social event scene.
In the early 1800s, men wore bulky, collared undershirts. Eventually, these undershirts lost their collars and developed the traditional three to five-button front panel. These new undershirts were more comfortable and much cooler.
Rowers found the new undershirts well-suited for their sport. Rowing is a strenuous activity, so the presence of the button collar allowed them greater airflow as they rowed on hot days. Also, without the collar, they had less fabric flapping in the breeze during rowing practice and competition.
These favorable traits caused some rowers to wear only the undershirt. This new trend caught on amongst the rowing community. And the Henley shirt as a sporting garment was born.
Another important factor in the spread in popularity of the Henley was the fact that it came around during the industrial revolution in Britain. The invention of the cotton gin allowed these 100% cotton shirts to be produced in mass quantities. And made them affordable for everyone.
Before long, rowing crews from all over the world wore their matching Henley-style uniforms at many of the sport's major events. But it would be many years before Henley shirts jumped from traditional rowing gear to mainstream fashion.
The Workman's Shirt
As the henley became popular with athletes, it also became an especially popular choice among the working class throughout the mid/late 1800s and early 1900s. Unlike the typical t-shirt, the henley’s buttons offered its wearers the ability to button up or button down, at least to the chest anyway.
This was appealing for the everyday working class because, depending on the weather and the work they’d be tackling, they’d thus be able to more easily ventilate their clothing. With innovations occurring in both the materials and the amount of clothing that could be produced at a time, the henley proved an affordable option for populations across the board.
The henley remained a sportswear shirt until it was discovered in 1970 by Ralph Lauren. T-shirts had become an acceptable everyday shirt, and Ralph saw the henley’s potential as a new type of casual shirt. He introduced the Ralph Lauren Henley in 1976, which catapulted the style into popular fashion. Slimmer fitting than the original shirt, the Ralph Lauren Henley is the pattern most modern henleys are modeled after.