HRR Fashion Seasons Done, Dusted and Now Lost to 2020

6 April 2020

By Thomas E. Weil

In this article, in The Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series, Tom Weil presents some photos of fashion at Henley Royal Regatta of old.

Tom Weil

For much of the Western world, Easter is the traditional spring fashion season. Sadly, while the day itself cannot be stripped from the calendar, the prevalence of COVID-19 renders the likelihood of the masses doing masses in their Easter outfits this year as quite illusory, the plaints of the aspirational leader of the free world notwithstanding.

Not illusory, however, is the absence of one of the greatest outdoor British fashion shows – the always inspired couture of Henley Royal Regatta. The decision of the Stewards to cancel the 2020 fixture guarantees that the uniquely colorful dress and regalia always on view at that splendid aquatic competition will be missing in action come July. (In the other highlights of the British summer social season, while Wimbledon has also been cancelled, the fate of Royal Ascot and the Derby still hang in the balance.)

While it would be politically incorrect to suggest that any HTBS devotees pay any attention to anything other than rowing at the HRR (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I know absolutely nothing about fashion), suffice it to say that the HRR would not be the HRR that it is without the displays of dress on view, ranging from the tribal (club blazers, boaters and ties) to the elegantly sublime to the unconsciously (or intentionally) outré.

The following photos of some Henley styles over the decades that followed the frilly excesses of the Victorian and Edwardian periods are offered as scant solace for the delights of dandy dressing to be missed this season. May they bloom and flourish again in a year’s time!

[early 1920s] While this relatively simple outfit is clearly more suitable for paddling a punt than swanning about on a lawn, among the favored accessories for many ladies afloat was a parasol, many of which, like this one, reflected the Japanese design styles which were so popular in fin de siècle and early 20th-century fashion.
[July 11, 1928]  “Pleasure Craft Lined Along the Course to See Henley Regatta” One might debate whether the more picturesque of HRR scenes is to be found in the Enclosure, where the emphasis is on mingling to see and to be seen, or in small craft on the booms, which tend to feature couples (and even families) with most of their eyes on the racing. This classic view represents the always hoped for sunlit Regatta day with dresses, blazers and flannels on full display.
[July 2, 1936]  “Henley Royal Regatta” Whereas this view, taken from the same perspective as the preceding one, represents the all too common plague of a rainy Henley summer day, in which a nattily dressed eight from Tokyo Imperial University wins a heat of the Grand from Quintin before a somber array of raincoats and caps.
[July 14, 1945]  “Henley Regatta Revived” The first Henley following the cessation of hostilities was marked by several temporary changes: it lasted only two days, it was called the Royal Henley Regatta (rather than Henley Royal Regatta), it was run with three entries per heat, and the course began at Remenham Barrier. And, perhaps indicative of the still restrictive conditions of post-war Britain, the rationing may have affected not just food, but the flaunting of fancy dress, as this array on display in the Enclosure appears particularly sober.
[July 3, 1953] “Contrasting Boaters” Were one limited to just one image of quintessential Henley royalty, this might well be it. John Pinches and wife Rosemary are shown here in matching headgear celebrating his London Rowing Club. Pinches won HRR events for LRC from 1935 to 1939 (including the 1938 Grand), as well the 1947 Goblets, and was otherwise a major figure in post-war British rowing (see Wikipedia link). Of perhaps even more importance, he headed the firm (founded by his great-great-uncle in 1840) that produced the Henley Royal Regatta medals, the most enduring symbols of HRR elegance imaginable.
[July 3, 1959] “Henley Headgear – Top These Toppers if You Can. Tina Foster wore a lace net over her blue-dyed hair and escort Frank Ripley sported a curled-brim trilby at Wednesday’s opening of the royal regatta [sic] … It may be significant that both are from Surrey – a name usually associated with the fringe on top.”
[July 7, 1966] “A Contrast in Henley Attire – These two retainers of the Sheikh of Abu Dhbi [sic] made this striking contrast in wearing apparel when they were pictured at Henley Regatta today.”
[June 29, 1972] “Opening of Henley Royal Regatta” The 1970s saw some significant contrasts between old and new, as exemplified in this face-off between traditional kit and hairstyle and a more Carnaby Street approach to hat, coiffure, tie and jacket.
[July 4, 1974] “Opening Day of the Henley Royal Regatta” A parasol serves its original purpose – to shade from the sun – as it protects a young lady in her Laura Ashley-style long dress as she listens to one of the most reliably consistently outfitted groups at Henley Royal Regatta – the military band.
[July 5, 1979] “Exotic Henley – Juliet Poyser, a 19-year-old art student from Twickenham, Middlesex, brings a splash of Eastern glamour to the sunny opening of Henley Royal Regatta today in white harem pants, worn with a black bandeau, a shady straw hat and a jet and pearl necklace. She made the outfit herself.”
What a note on which to end. While the half century from the 1920s to the 1970s saw quite an evolution of dress styles along Henley Reach, this elegant outfit, donned four decades ago, could just as well have adorned a young lady in the 2019 Steward’s Enclosure. Plus ça change – but let’s see what awaits in 2021 …

One comment

  1. …but how did Ms Poyser gain admission to the Stewards Enclosure wearing pantaloons? Unless this is the Plebs’ enclosure?

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