24 July 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch on change in a seemingly unchanging event.
On Thursday, Henley Chairman Sir Steve Redgrave sent an email to all members of the Stewards’ Enclosure. It began by giving details of the allocation of guest badges and of the COVID related requirements for those entering the Enclosure (members and their guests will require proof of full vaccination; or a negative lateral flow test; or natural immunity).
Sir Steve then continued:
I would also like to take this opportunity to highlight an updated Dress Code for the Stewards’ Enclosure which will take effect for the 2021 Regatta, allowing ladies to wear trousers….
This marks a small but important step in the evolution of the Regatta and our expectation is that the Stewards’ Enclosure will continue to be as elegant and magical as ever.
The requirement for those ladies who do choose to wear dresses to have a hemline below the knee remains, as does the universal ban on shorts, leggings, tracksuits or jeans.
No doubt, some members of Stewards will object, but I hope that most will see the end of the women’s trouser ban as something whose time has come. Importantly, Henley has not abandoned its commitment to being a “stylish” occasion and maintaining the “air of an Edwardian garden party”. The regatta has simply acknowledged that there is no reason why women’s trousers cannot be elegant. I would add that there is nothing inherently stylish in a dress or skirt below the knee and, some younger women especially, struggle to produce an attractive outfit that obeys this rule.
I think that the retention of the hemline/knee rule is wise as, although it is a rather blunt instrument, it is the simplest best way to maintain some sort of standard of elegance without subjecting every woman to a vote by a committee of the style police.
Last year, Tom Weil posted a nice piece on HTBS that looked at historical fashions at Henley.
In December 2018, I wrote about the self-financing regatta and its relationship to change:
There are presently 67 Stewards, and they are a self-electing body who are mostly accomplished rowers but who also include some long-serving and successful administrators of the sport. The 7,000 Members of the Stewards’ Enclosure have no voting rights or control over how the regatta is run… The accumulated knowledge and experience of the Stewards produces a regatta that (mostly) satisfies both the competitors and the social attendees.
Henley now thrives because it responds to a changing world. It is true that reform can come slowly, but rushed and populist change can produce poor long-term results. Today, most people cannot imagine that in the 1960s and 1970s when the regatta did not move with the times, it almost died. Previously, even when there was some reform, it was done begrudgingly or defensively. When Henley finally allowed women to cox in 1975, the then chairman stated “I would emphasise that this is in no way the thin end of the wedge. It is not a triumph for women’s lib – or any nonsense of that sort.”
That fighter against “nonsense” was John Garton and he was succeeded as Chairman in 1977 by Peter Coni. Coni brought many reforms to Henley, put it on a firm financial footing and secured its once doubted future. However, PRC Coni QC, a conservative radical, had strong ideas on the limits of change. In my short 2017 biography of him, I wrote:
As the pressure for equal rights increased, Coni had the unaccustomed experience of dealing with the demands of women. Some wanted to raise their hemlines in the Stewards’ Enclosure and others wanted to lower their boats onto the regatta course. “Ghastly” short skirts remained prohibited in order to “maintain a level of dignity.” The un-PC QC was quoted in “The Times” in 1988:
“If you go with fashion you get middle-aged women showing thighs that should have been kept secret for years. What is the next stage? You start having people stripping to the waist because it’s hot. It will begin to look like Lord’s or Wimbledon; God forbid we should get down to their level”.
As to Coni and women rowing at Henley:
[In] 1981 and 1982 there were some invitation events for women. The seemingly half-hearted experiment was soon deemed a failure on the grounds that overall the quality of the entries was “indifferent.” Coni dismissed the resulting protests as “women’s squealing” but always claimed that ultimately he wanted women rowing at Henley Royal.
Today, Henley’s Committee of Management (twelve Stewards selected annually from the total currently at 63) has an average age of 53 ranging from 35 to 67. If, in the past, the Committee had its share of ultra-conservative members, this is no longer the case. Apart from the small but symbolic end of the ban on women’s trousers, the progressive nature of those who now run the regatta is seen in their attitude to social and political change.
In June 2020, following the killing of George Floyd, the Committee of Management released a statement on racial injustice, something that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. Notably, it said that:
We recognise that rowing is seen as a predominantly white and privileged sport, especially in its leadership, and we believe that we all have a part to play in addressing racism and inequality as individuals, as communities and as organisations. We unequivocally condemn racism in sport and in society.
The statement was a long way from accepting crews from Apartheid South Africa or railing against “women’s lib”. Indeed, the most obvious radical and practical change by Henley in recent years has been in its attitude to women.
Of the 63 current Stewards, only twelve are women – nineteen percent. However, there is much historical legacy here. If the twelve are taken as a proportion of the thirty-six Stewards elected since the first woman was given the honour in 1997, the figure is one-third. Of the last ten Stewards elected, six have been female. On membership of the Stewards’ Enclosure, Henley was far ahead of its equivalent in cricket or golf in that it allowed women to become members soon after the 1939 – 1945 War.
On the rowing front, the first proper HRR women’s event, the women’s single sculls race that is now the Princess Royal, started in 1993. Since 2017, Henley has had gender parity for men and women in the open categories (six events each). The three intermediate events are still men only but, this year, women’s eights races will be included alongside the existing three men’s student events, the existing three men’s club events and the existing one women’s and two men’s junior events. The old joke about Henley continuing even if rowing stopped is not true. If the regatta does not remain relevant to the competitive rowers of the day and if it does not reflect the rowing scene in which it exists, it will effectively cease to be.
Ultimately and ironically, Henley Royal Regatta can only keep up the Edwardian façade and appear to be unchanging by constant (and sometimes unpopular) innovation. Like that other aquatic beast, the great white shark, Henley has to keep moving forward in order to breathe.