The Henley shirt was first seen in the early nineteenth century in England, where they primarily served as men’s undergarments. The shirt style is characterized as a collarless, knit shirt with a banded collar and a placket of two to five inches usually containing three to five buttons.
As some of the earliest collarless underwear, Henleys were known for being extremely comfortable and easy to wear. Early styles were typically made of unbleached cotton or gauze in the summer, or merino wool or heavy flannel wool for the winter.
The Henley shirt began as an undergarment but really took hold as a sportswear staple in the 1800s.
The Henley shirt derives its name from the small English town of Henley-on-Thames, a town in Oxfordshire, England. Here, the Henley shirt became a favored uniform of the rowers on the river Thames. Rowers greatly enjoyed the performance features of the lack of a collar, as well as the increase in ventilation from the placket.
The first Henley Royal Regatta, the largest rowing race in all of England, took place in 1839. And losers of the regatta would typically give their Henley shirts to the winners at the end of the race. The passing of these Henley shirts greatly aided in the spread of the style, and Henley shirts remained a rowing staple until the mid 1940s.
In the early 1900’s a similarly styled Henley shirt became quite popular in the new American sport of Baseball. As with rowing, the placket and banded collar of the shirt style made it the ideal breathable uniform for warm days on the field.
This style evolved to include the full placket seen in uniforms today. The Henley shirt remained almost exclusively in the realm of sportswear until the mid 1970’s when it became acceptable casual wear, based off of the vintage original rowing shirts.
The Henley shirt remained almost exclusively a performance piece in the realm of sportswear until the mid 1970’s when it was picked up by menswear designers and became a staple casual wear piece for both men and women and a favorite of everyone from Brad Pitt to Anthony Bourdain.
Regardless if the Henley is worn today as a baselayer or casually on its own, there is no denying that the Henley shirt is a classic activewear staple, and will be worn for many years to come both casually and during activity.
The henley, elevated.
Photo Credits: Henley Royal Regatta, ESPN