Boomers Ask, “What’s A Henley?”

Recently Mister Boomer had the occasion to shop for casual shirts. Browsing through the menswear section is always a reminder that fashion caters to the under 30 population — making him feel that much older and making the venture that much more irksome — in no small part due to the fact that we boomers are the ones who assisted in the expansion of the younger consumer demographic. Nonetheless, it was heartening to see that some “old friends” — staples of our fashion style from the 1960s — were still present: T-shirts and jeans, of course, but also horizontal striped pullovers and polo-style shirts, and the occasional paisley or polka-dot patterns. So it was a welcome sight when Mister B found himself in front of a display of pullover shirts, the style of which was part of his chosen mode of dress throughout his college years. He immediately recognized them as “Wallace Beery shirts.” Much to his surprise, though, the sign read “Henley.” Mister B had not heard them called that before. The style had waned in fashion circles in the ’80s and ’90s, and has since made a comeback, so Mister B wondered if it was being rebranded with this new name. His inquiring mind wanted to know more on the subject, and the results can now be revealed.

The Henley is a pullover shirt that is like a combination of a T-shirt and a polo shirt. It is collarless, like a T-shirt, but has the two- or three-button plackets exhibited on a polo shirt. Henleys are often long-sleeved. The name, like the fashion, predates the boomer era by more than a hundred years. The Henley got its name, if not its origin, from a town in southwest England called Henley-On-Thames. There, in the mid-1800s, the city had a rowing team. It is said a shirt was created for their racing team that accommodated the need for the complete movement that is necessary in the sport. That shirt was called the Henley, after the town and team.

Meanwhile, in America, when people began buying clothes in stores in the early 1800s (as opposed to making all their own), a standard rose in male undergarments called the union suit. It was, in effect, a one-piece long underwear that covered the torso from the wrists to the ankles. At the neck was the Henley-style short placket and buttons. After the Civil War, as the Industrial Revolution began, this undergarment was separated into two pieces, thus creating the American version of the Henley shirt.

The militaries of several European countries, as well as the U.S., adopted the style as standard issue from World War I through World War II. That’s where Wallace Beery (1885 – 1949) enters the picture. An actor, he successfully made the transition from the Silent Picture era to star in countless films in the 1930s and ’40s. Our parents grew up with these films, and the story goes that Wallace Beery’s characters wore Henleys in so many films that the shirt took on his name.

As boomers grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, the TV industry was thirsting for content to fill its twenty-hour-a-day broadcasting schedule. Old black & white movies that they could acquire cheaply fit the bill, so many of Wallace Beery’s films became familiar to another generation. Boomers best remember Mr. Beery from such films as Treasure Island (1934), where he portrayed Long John Silver opposite a young Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins, his Oscar-winning Best Actor role in The Champ (1931) and as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1934). Since we heard our parents call the shirt by the actor’s name, we took that at face value.

It is Mister Boomer’s theory that, as the sixties progressed and home sentiment grew against the Vietnam War, boomers saw returning veterans protesting the war in military garb, including Henleys. As a result, many boomers adopted military styles as a form of protest. They could also buy military clothing at surplus shops very inexpensively. As the psychedelic era came into being, these shirts were customized with embroidery, tie dye and patches. By the 1970s, the style was available in stores in a wide variety of colors and fabrics, and had morphed from a purely male fashion style to both male and female. It was the beginning of the 1970s when Mister Boomer purchased Wallace Beery shirts as his uniform of choice for attending classes at the university.

Since Mr. Beery died in 1949, the vast majority of people born after the Boomer Generation would be hard-pressed to know who Wallace Beery was. The shirt style to them, then, will always be known as a Henley.

Mister B will concede the naming and henceforth call the shirt a Henley, as calling it a Wallace Beery will not only age him, but fill anyone within earshot with wonderment at what the old coot is talking about.

When did the Henley enter your personal fashion history, boomers?