8 October 2019
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch produces one of his rowing shorts.
When I started rowing in the mid-1980s, there were two British suppliers of rowing kit: Godfrey and Spartan. What they supplied was not very much, mostly black terry towelling shorts and white cotton singlets with club colours in a horizontal band across the chest. For a time, it was fashionable to sew a rectangular towelling bar mat (preferably Guinness) to the seat ‘to improve grip’. Even this was an advance on what had come before when shorts were long, baggy and cotton, and tops were old vests (undershirts) onto which wives or mothers sewed a few inches of club ribbon. By the late 1980s, lycra shorts started to come in – though the early examples lost their stretch after a season.
In his book, Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians (2012), Chris Dodd records perhaps one of the first uses of ‘technical fabrics’ in British rowing kit. In the early 1970s, British rowing was having some rare success with a Thames Tradesmen’s crew, ‘The Beatle Four’, so called because of the young crew’s long hair (which the Amateur Rowing Association suggested that they have cut). In 1970, Bill Mason, Fred Smallbone, Jim Clark and Lenny Robertson were selected for the World Championships in Canada:
They were given a Marks & Spencer vest and a GB badge to sew on to it themselves, and white (cotton) shorts with reinforced backside and pockets and buckles. ‘They were horrible, we hated them,’ Robertson says. ‘Bill said, I can’t wear these, and the next day he turned up with four pairs of black cycling shorts, long in the leg, which he bought from (a cycling shop) in Putney…’
Whatever changes were made to get to the abundance of rowing kit in technical fabrics that we now have, for most of rowing’s history, kit was mostly inflexible, often dirty and usually well worn – as these pictures illustrate.
The custom of not washing rowing kit on a regular basis was not thought of as strange in the days when washing and drying any clothing was a complicated business and standards of personal hygiene were very different to today’s. When I arrived at Auriol Kensington in the mid-1980s, there still existed a tall, asbestos lined cupboard in the changing room. I was told that at one time this had an open gas ring on the floor. Wet clothing would be hung in there after rowing and the gas put on a low flame to dry the kit out. On club nights, the old jockstraps would be pushed aside, the gas turned up and sausages cooked in a frying pan over the open flame.
American crews seemed to wear kit made from thinner cotton than their British counterparts, or perhaps some sort of jersey knit wool. This was probably more practical and comfortable, if not more revealing.