The Henley Shirt, a collarless shirt with a round neckline and placket with 2-5 buttons, is now a wardrobe staple around the world thanks to designer Ralph Lauren.
It was named after Henley because they were the traditional uniform of rowers in Henley.
Henley shirts were first seen in nineteenth-century England, where they were used as men’s undergarments. These undervests were some of the first collarless underwear and were known for being easier to wear and more comfortable, but they soon became sportswear. Rowers enjoyed the increased ventilation from the placket and lack of collar and it soon became the standard rowing uniform. The crew racing tradition also contributed to the spread of the shirt, as the losers would typically give their shirts to the winners at the end of a race.
The Henley remained almost exclusively in the realm of sportswear through the early 1970s. By the latter half of the twentieth century, t-shirts had become acceptable casual wear and a buyer for Ralph Lauren saw the Henley’s potential as a new kind of t-shirt hybrid after seeing a vintage example. In his biography of Ralph Lauren, the journalist Michael Gross quotes a New York merchant who recalled showing a vintage shirt to a Ralph Lauren buyer: “I showed this fellow underwear—a three-button long-sleeve shirt by Johnstown Knitting Mills. He said, “This is a new shirt.”
If you would like to buy a Henley shirt, Laurence Menswear on Duke Street have them (photo above).