Oarswomen’s Dress in the 1920s: Reminiscences From The Bottom-Right-Hand-Corner

Having just won the first Oxford – Cambridge Women’s Boat Race, the captain and cox of the 1927 Oxford University Women’s Boat Club Crew enjoy a post-race smoke. These young women of the jazz age may have been allowed tobacco, daring haircuts and fashionable headbands but the right to wear shorts when rowing was a bigger battle.

From Mr Timothy Koch


The Times newspaper (often distinguished as The London Times by foreigners) was long-known as “The Thunderer” because of the sway its editorials had on those in power. Of course, particularly in the age of the Internet, its influence has greatly diminished along with that of the rest of the printed press. Despite this decline, The Times still has the most famous letters page of any British newspaper, even if this distinction derives more from the past than the present. Historically at least, the letters page of The Times was a British institution and it gives a unique insight into the nation’s social and cultural history, albeit mostly through the lens of the more privileged classes.

In 2017, James Owen edited The Times Great Letters: A century of notable correspondence. The publishers noted that:

As a forum for debate, playground for opinion-formers, advertising space for decision-makers and noticeboard for eccentrics, nothing rivals (the Times letters page) for entertainment value. By turns well-informed, well-intentioned, curious, quirky and bizarre… it has taken the temperature of the British way of life and provided a window on the national character.

An angry and reactionary figure sitting in a gentleman’s club threatening to “Write a letter to The Times!” about some minor upset was a popular character in British humour. Picture: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0).

While primarily a forum for The Great And The Good to declare and debate, the Times letters page also became a home of eccentric British ideas and obsessions, most famously perhaps the annual reports of hearing the first cuckoo of spring. As James Owen’s publishers observed, it is the place to go “if you want to know why kippers are dyed, who first turned up their trousers (or) how to make perfect porridge”.

This strange mix of the serious and the silly (and all points in-between) meant that letters from Charles Dickens sickened by a public hanging, Florence Nightingale on her vision of healthcare and Benito Mussolini on “the great historical importance of the Fascist experiment” could exist in the same forum as correspondence from Prime Minister Chamberlain on birds in St James’ Park, Sir Julian Huxley on the plural of rhinoceros and P.G. Wodehouse on Bertie Wooster’s receding chin.

Of course, the serious letters take precedence and they begin, naturally, on the top-left-hand-corner of the correspondence page. However, many readers start by reading the letters on the bottom-right-hand-side, the place where the “curious, quirky and bizarre” are put.

In the bottom right, thoughts on marmalade, decorations that tennis is effeminate, warnings on the leech shortage, suggestions for “men only” commuter trains or evidence on the benefits of sleeping outdoors could all generate days or weeks of heated debate until the editor finally declares that, “Correspondence on this subject is now closed”. 

In 1972, the bottom-right-hand-corner was for a few days concerned with oarswomen’s dress in the 1920s, a correspondence sparked, as it often was, by something in the features pages. 

19 March: Miss Phyllis Hartnoll started it all by declaring that she wore shorts, not a skirt while rowing for Oxford in 1927.
Instruction at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1924. No skirts here.
Oarswomen in shorts at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1925.
21 March: Miss Essex responded to the younger Miss Hartnoll with the fact that skirts were the rule at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, in 1919 and later.
Skirts (aka “gym tunics”) at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1919. 

The history page on the Newnham College Boat Club website says that permission to wear shorts was granted by the Newnham Principal in 1924 but only after a beshorted boat club captain had sat on a footstool in her office to demonstrate that the garments were not immodest. According to the University of Cambridge Digital Library however, shorts were only permitted on the lower river.

St Hilda’s in divided skirts and sailor blouses in 1921.
21 March: Mrs Jacobs declared that London’s Bedford College was not as advanced as Oxford in 1927 and that skirts were still worn.
University College, London, on the Thames in 1927. Shorts seem to have been acceptable for UCL.
23 March: Mrs King noted that Newnham College represented Cambridge in the early Women’s Boat Races and that they wore shorts in college colours.
The 1927 Newnham crew that represented Cambridge. Club blazers were dark brown with gold braid edging and were known as “mud and mustard”.
11 April: The Times Diary reported on what lay underneath.
Glasson’s “The Young Rower” (1932). Picture: Touchstones, Rochdale.

Possibly only the letters page of The Times could have put oarswomen’s underwear of the 1920s into the public domain.

I have the honour to remain, Sir, your obedient servant,


“Fixed Pins”, Dogger’s Field, Henley-on-Thames, Oxon.

17 October 2022

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