Rowing Blazers: An Interview with Jack Carlson

Rowing Blazers:  It’s a book that delves into the history, tradition, and style behind an article of clothing that represents both the sport and unique teams that compete against one another.  To say Jack Carlson’s book is mesmerizing would be one of the biggest understatements of the year.  I was privileged to have an exclusive copy of the coveted book composed of over 250 pages of blazers from various colleges and teams throughout the world.

While the book is certainly enjoyable to page through thanks to the photographic talent of F.E. Castleberry of Unabashedly Prep, it’s also a textbook for those – such as myself – that know very little about the sport of rowing.  Though I have barely made it a quarter of the way through the book as I write this post, I was fascinated to learn that the ever-so-popular blazer was constructed not for the academic, but the athletic.

Regardless of your skill on the water, Rowing Blazers has a place on everyone’s bookshelf – or coffee table.  For me, I feel it’s one of the few books that exists that offers the opportunity to draw immense inspiration from the photographs it features.  From wide strips to unique color combinations, each blazer has its own style – and story – that Jack Carlson has been able to discover, capture, and share.

Below is a personal Q&A with Jack that features an exclusive look behind his inspiration for the book, his experiences as a rower, and his plans for the future ahead of him.

PS:  Jack, should you ever need to liquidate any blazers from your personal collection I would be glad to take them off your hands…

Photographer

Q:  It seems as though “rowing fashion” or “proper regatta attire” is much more prevalent overseas opposed to in the states – do your experiences concur with this notion?

A: Well, each nation has its own set of rowing blazer traditions, which vary, of course, from club to club.  In the U.S., rowing blazers are a bit rarer than they are in some other parts of the world.  This is because American oarsmen and oarswomen usually have to earn their coveted jackets only by winning a domestic championship or at the end of an undefeated regular season, when the crew will have blazers made up before heading across the Atlantic to compete at the Henley Royal Regatta.  Unless an American rower has competed at Henley, he or she won’t generally own a club blazer.

In Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, however, most oarsmen have a club blazer, and these jackets are de rigueur battle gear at riotous boat club dinners, garden parties and traditional regattas.

The Netherlands has some of the most remarkable blazer rituals.  There, rowing blazers are usually passed down from one generation of rowers to the next and are almost universally ill-fitting, threadbare and filthy; for Dutch tradition also dictates that a blazer may not be washed until its wearer has won the nation’s most prestigious regatta: the Varsity.

 

Q: Do you prefer coxing one size boat in particular? If so, which size & why?

A: I like coxing eights because they are (hopefully) fast.  But I’ve also enjoyed coxing fours, and the coxed four is the event in which I’ve had the most success at Henley Royal Regatta.  This year I coxed the USA coxed pair at the World Championships.  That was a cool experience.  The coxed pair is a very traditional boat class with a lot of history, but it’s a boat class that is raced virtually nowhere outside of the World Championships these days.  There’s a different dynamic in the pair, and – I’ll be honest – as the cox you often feel a little superfluous.  There’s a reason why most two-man crews are coxless!

Photographer

Q: What is the most memorable regatta you’ve participated in & what made it so special to you or your crew?

A: I think almost every oarsman or -woman who has had the chance to race at Henley Royal Regatta will tell you that it has a special place in his or her heart.  The history and heritage of the event, the standard of the crews competing, and – yes – the dress code all give the regatta its sense of magic.

Every rower also has their own personal Henley history.  I first raced at Henley in 2004.  The regatta is a single elimination championship, like March Madness.  In ’04, we were knocked out in the first round – and indeed, it is this fact that gave me so much time to admire and study all of the various club blazers in the spectator enclosures.  I spent much of the nine subsequent years trying to win Henley (when I wasn’t researching blazers)!  In 2011, I made it to the semi-final; in 2012, the final (where I lost by an agonizing 3 foot margin); and in 2013 I finally won.  That journey and ultimate victory make the regatta an especially meaningful event for me.

 

Q: Is there one crew in particular – that you’ve coxed – that you feel the strongest connection to?

A: There are many – the 2011 Oxford lightweight eight and the 2011 USA lightweight eight stand out for sure.  But in general I really feel the strongest connection to the Oxford Brookes crews that I’ve been part of.  It’s not one particular crew, but the club as a whole just has a fantastic atmosphere: great camaraderie and great competition within the squad.

Photographer

Q: Do you foresee “rowing fashion” becoming more popular in the states?

A: More and more crews in the U.S. are having blazers made for themselves – in some cases, even if they are not planning to race at Henley.  The most traditional American tailor for a rowing blazer remains the Andover Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, although some American crews have their blazers made up by British tailors.

Generally speaking, there is certainly a growing interest in rowing-inspired looks.  You see this in rowing-themed Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers and Sperry ads.  In recent years, we’ve also seen very literal takes on the traditional rowing blazer – stripes, badges and contrast-binding – from Ralph Lauren, Thom Browne, AMI, Hackett, Kent & Curwen and others.

 

Q: While you were traveling around the world photographing crews and learning about their histories, did you get the impression that crews were knowledgeable/proud of their histories? 

A: Rowers are tremendously in touch with the history of the sport and the histories of their respective clubs.  I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere about how rowers face backwards in the boat when they row…

Cambridge University Boat Club-1

Q: What inspired to create the Rowing Blazers book?  Was there a particular instance when the idea crossed your mind, or had it always been something you wanted to pursue?

A: The book really brings together three big interests of mine: rowing, menswear and pageantry.  I’d wanted to create a book like this since I first saw the bewildering array of blazers in the Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2010 or so, when I was at Oxford – one of the birthplaces of the blazer, that I felt I was ideally situated to make that vision a reality.

 

Q: With your book now in print, what do your foresee yourself doing over the next four years?

A: I’m weighing my own future in the sport of rowing now to determine whether I’ll aim to continue competing at the national team level or not.  Either way, I am going to finish up my PhD at Oxford, and have a few more book ideas I’d like to pursue!

3 - Rowing Blazers look inside-1

Rowing Blazers is published by The Vendome Press and is available here

Framed limited edition photographic prints are available here

Comments

  1. Mujan

    This whole post was absolutely fascinating! Seriously, what an excellent introduction to such a fascinating sport and really the whole culture. I immediately ordered the book and can’t wait to receive it. Good luck with your future ventures, Mr. Carlson!

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