Blues in Bags

Tim Koch writes:

I am often inspired to write a particular post by something that appears on ‘Hear The Boat Sing’. The splendid photograph of the 1931 Oxford Crew that illustrated Malcolm Cook’s article on the use of shaved blades in the 1920s and 1930s is one such thing.

The Oxford Crew of 1931.

I have attempted to identify everyone but I do stand to be corrected. From left to right: ER Edmett (Cox), WG Holdsworth (Stroke), WDC Erskine Crum (7), L Clive (6), JF Platts-Mills (Bow), CM Johnston (4), RJA Poole (5), GML Smith (2), GM Tinne (3). (On Boat Race Day, Platts-Mills did not row, instead it was WL Garstang in the bow seat.)

The Cambridge Crew of 1931.

Again, I have attempted to identify everyone correctly but contact me if I have got some names wrong. Clearly the cox, JM Ranking, is standing at the front. Behind him, left to right, are TA Brocklebank (Stroke), CJS Sergel (7), PN Carpmael (5), RHH Symonds (3), HRN Rickett (6), Unknown (perhaps a sub?), G Grey (4), D Haig-Thomas (Bow) and WA Prideaux (2).
I have a particular interest in the 1931 Boat Race as I own a winner’s medal from that year as well as a sheet of CUBC writing paper with the crew’s autographs.

The 1931 CUBC Boat Race Medal and crew autographs. Unfortunately, I do not know who was given this particular medal or who collected the signatures.

The two crew pictures above illustrate the power of photography. The technically better picture of Oxford makes them look far more glamourous than their Light Blue counterparts. The Cambridge picture is from a much copied postcard and contrast has been lost while the Oxford print has more light and shade. The men from the Isis look powerful and poised while those from the Cam look awkward and not especially fit. The irony is, of course, that it was Cambridge who won in 1931.

There is another reason that the two photographs appeal to me. As I have mentioned before, I am interested in the history of men’s clothing and many of these young men are sporting one of the great fashions of the interwar period – ‘Oxford Bags’. ‘Bags’ is simply an old slang word for loose-fitting trousers or, in American-English, pants. These usually measured about 24 inches around the ankle (though there were, briefly, broader examples sported by a flamboyant few) and were wider at the knee. They were popularised by Oxford students, if not invented by them, but by the late 1920s they were worn in many parts of Britain and the U.S., despite ridicule from the older generation. A contemporary joke ran: ‘Why are Oxford Trousers like two French towns?’ ‘Because they are Toulon and Toulouse’. In 1924, the first sighting in Hull in the North of England was thought worthy of a report in the local newspaper. By the 1930s they had become mainstream and were commonly worn by all classes of men, not just privileged undergraduates like these sturdy chaps filmed by British Pathe in 1938:

MEET THE OXFORD CREW

There is an extreme example in the Oxford Crew picture, sported by Smith, second from the right. They may seem strange to us now but perhaps they are preferable to the modern trend for young men to wear underwear revealing jeans with a low slung crotch, tapering to a tight fit around the ankle. Several places in America have called in the Fashion Police.

Oxford 1924.

The cartoonists were particularly fond of Oxford Bags as seen by the above caricature of WP Mellen and crewmates in 1924 (fans of the British version of the ‘Top Gear’ TV programme may notice Jeremy Clarkson in the top left). Another example is here where the 1925 joke is that ‘Cambridge… have no intention of giving up the trouser race without a struggle. They have visited their local tailor and their coach has him doing 33 stitches to the minute’.

There are several stories about the origins of the fashion. Some claim that bags were invented by the Oxford aesthete and dilettante Harold Acton (often alleged to be the inspiration for the ‘Anthony Blanche’ character in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited). Bob Boothby (later Baron Boothby, a Conservative politician with an exceptionally colourful private life, described by the late Queen Mother as ‘a bounder but not a cad’) claimed that he was the inventor, saying that it was ‘the only creative thing’ that he did while he was at the university. However, Oxford Bags were known to have existed while both of these gentlemen were in short trousers, baggy or not, so their origins must be elsewhere. Writing in the New Sheridan Club newsletter of July 2013, Sean Longden has a theory of much greater interest to HTBS readers:

First mention of wide trousers in the USA came in 1924 when reporters mentioned wide white trousers being worn at the Henley Regatta and “Eights Week”, the annual intercollegiate rowing event at Oxford. This is important because it links us to the true story of why Oxford bags were developed…  Speaking in August 1925, Mr Kendrick, the Keeper of Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, gave his explanation for the genesis of the Oxford Bags… ‘(Students) found the wide trousers convenient to pull over (their) shorts to go down to the river.’

A contributor to an online men’s clothing forum found this piece of contemporary supporting evidence in the Dundee Courier newspaper of May 1926.

Longden continues:

Writing in the 1920s, a former travelling salesman referred to selling “Oxford Bags” in the 1880s. And in the 1904 novel A Chicago Princess by Robert Barr, the main character is a former Oxford student who comes across ‘a pair of Oxford bags I had not worn in years…’  Furthermore, the Rowing Museum at Henley holds a pair of 1896 trousers made from an off-white blanket material, which are described as “Oxford Bags”. These were trousers used by rowers to keep warm between races. Effectively the track suit trousers of their day.

There can be not doubt that ‘blanket bags’ originated in the late nineteenth century. There are many pictures of Victorian oarsmen wearing very baggy off white trousers in a coarse woollen material. They are invariably roughly rolled up at the bottom to something approaching the correct length. These are most elegantly illustrated by the ‘Spy’ cartoons in Vanity Fair magazine.

WAL Fletcher, 1893.

CT Fogg-Elliot, 1894.

RC Lehmann, 1895.

In summary, Oxford Bags were originally a crude garment made in rough inexpensive material invented by rowers as a form of what would later be called ‘sweatpants’. At sometime around the early 1920s students had this style of trousers made in finer cloth, properly tailored and finished with turnups (‘cuffs’ in the U.S.), which were then worn for everyday use. The fashion soon spread and Longden argues that bags influenced the basic shape of men’s trousers up to the 1950s. It seems that rowing provided the first real example of sportswear influencing mainstream fashion.

5 comments

  1. Dear Don,

    Many thanks for your kind words. It is nice to know that there is somebody out there reading my efforts, let alone enjoying it. If you are ever in London, contact me about a scull up the Thames.

    Go Beavers! (or is it Ducks?)

    Tim.

  2. Hi Tim,

    You might be interested to know that there is a very early mention of ‘white trousers’ in Rowing at Westminster (1890), a recent purchase by me from a bookseller in New Jersey.

    In a footnote on page 52 commenting on the crews of 1842 is the following:

    * In this year a great social revolution, closely connected with “going on the water,” was consummated. All Queen’s scholars were allowed to wear trousers, hitherto confined to the eight and the sixth.

    “Long loose white trousers! Bless Jem Staines the sinner,
    Heav’n bless the Boat-race and Heav’n bless the winner;
    Bless the Etonians, bless their heavy boat,
    And bless their calculations when they’re out,”
    Epilogue to second Election Play, by Rev. J Benthall.

    Jem staines is noted as being the 'College tailor'.

    Rev. John Benthall (1806-88) was educated at Westminster School and returned there to teach. He left under a cloud when discipline broke down and he was unable to control his pupils. He spent 35 years as Vicar at Willen Church, Willen, Milton Keynes, where he is buried. Willen Church is within walking distance of my home and is sited on the north of Willen Lake, a man made stormwater balancing lake built between 1972-78.

  3. I have now confirmed that I have identified those picture in the 1931 crew pictures correctly. Further, the unidentified person in the Cambridge picture that I guessed was a ‘spare man’ was indeed such. I only have his surname, ‘Fletcher’.

    Tim.

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