Before it was popular with vampires and superheroes, the henley was what the poor wore for work and the rich wore for play.
On The CW, superheroes, vampires, zombies, and a teen boy trying to emote through the power of song all have one thing in common: They each have several henley shirts in their closet.
This versatile item of clothing seems like a mandatory costuming requirement, which speaks to its appeal and the message it conveys. Namely, it does a very good job of showing off the physique of guys who possess some unusual abilities or are going to live forever. It also suggests the wearer doesn’t want you to think they spend a whole lot of time contemplating their look (even if they do), and it’s casual without looking lazy. The shirt, which can be styled many ways, has gone on quite the journey from the English town where it got its name.
In 1839, the first Henley Royal Regatta was held on the River Thames by the town of Henley-on-Thames. The rowing event has played host to crews from across the globe since 1878 and remains steeped in tradition. Still, rowing apparel has changed over the last century with the development of lightweight materials, and the henley is no longer worn while competing. Despite the name origin ,the henley has been retired from what was actually its second purpose; it started life as an undergarment in the 1800s.
Transforming a garment from sleepwear into something worn for sport might not be a natural throughline, but the weight and comfort element made the henley ideal for an outdoor pursuit where you definitely work up a sweat. The lack of collar means there’s nothing flapping in the wind, and the placket of buttons (typically two to five) aids ventilation; all helpful for sleep, work, and sport. The versatility of the henley shirt can be seen in its early adoption by rowers and how it has been worn since.
As the cotton industry — which set off in the 1770s and changed the face of manufacturing — boomed, items like this were not only readily available, but they were also affordable; it wasn’t just the privileged and wealthy taking part at events like the Henley Royal Regatta who were wearing this style of shirt. The only difference was rowers wore it to compete in rather than as an undershirt.
The henley shirt on the whole offers a much more everyman image than the other popular sports-to-leisure shirt innovation: the preppy, popped-collar polo. That’s why it is a go-to costuming choice for many shows, and not just the handsome dudes of The CW. GQ has referred to it as “the sexiest shirt in your wardrobe.” Coming in a variety of materials and sleeve lengths, it shows off those biceps and forearms for every vampire, werewolf, and teen quarterback/singer-songwriter while also highlighting the pectoral region. It can be super tight for those swole days or layered with a shirt (preferably plaid) if he’s feeling a little more self-conscious or cold.
Because the henley also resembles undershirts from way back, for characters who were born two centuries ago — such as the Salvatore brothers on The Vampire Diaries and True Blood’s Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) — it keeps things simple, mirroring what they wore when they first became vampires. A lot has changed since the 1860s, but the general style of a henley shirt has maintained. The continuity of design helps make it a staple wardrobe item, and there is also an interesting push/pull in its origins; sports attire for the wealthy and an undershirt of the working man.
Take Boardwalk Empire and the character Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt); Jimmy has a super messy family history in terms of status, but he is more aligned with a worker than high society. We see him at the family kitchen table wearing a henley as an undershirt while he eats breakfast. While henley gets its name from an exclusive event, across the ocean it maintained its original undergarment function for many years. The Levi’s Vintage Collection recreates clothes from the Levi’s archive, and the 2015 fall/winter Levi’s Vintage Collection lookbook includes this red number as seen on denim archivist Michael Allen Harris. His shirt is a design originally worn in 1920. Harris digs for denim in old coal mines; it is also worth noting the role of the henley as part of a coal miner’s uniform — a far cry from the River Thames.
But the henley isn’t just for the every man; there are plenty of options for women, too. Keeping with the “for everyone” theme, with her sensible and comfortable collection of sweaters, cardigans, and yep, you guessed it, henleys filling out her college wardrobe, Felicity Porter (Keri Russell) was Queen of Normcore before it had a name. Felicity aired on what was then The WB in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, but if this show was on now, then there’s no doubt Ben (Scott Speedman) and Noel (Scott Foley) would be duking it out for Felicity’s affection while wearing henleys.
That’s not to say that women on The CW are excluded from this trend. iZombie’s Liv Moore (Rose McIver) is more than partial to a henley beneath her lab coat, and Elena/Katherine (both played by Nina Dobrev) reverted to this style just as often as the guys did on The Vampire Diaries. It’s another case of the versatility of the henley, as lace and tank versions appear alongside the more traditional styles on both supernatural-themed shows. In the same way the clingy material can enhance pecs, it also does wonders for boobs.
How many buttons are undone can also do a lot to change the vibe of the wearer. If you let all of them loose, then you enter the deeper V danger zone, as demonstrated on occasion by former CW/WB stars Chad Michael Murray and Ed Westwick. No one wants this. Westwick’s former co-stars Penn Badgely and Chace Crawford both wore henleys on Gossip Girl and tended to go for the typical “couple of buttons” route, showing some level of sexiness without going too far into chest-baring territory.
How many buttons are undone can also do a lot to change the vibe of the wearer.
Typically, all buttons done up is for sitcoms such as Black-ish, Modern Family, and New Girl. Two out of the three henley-wearers are dad characters, and the other is Nick Miller (Jake Johnson). He would never consider himself hot enough to contemplate undoing a button.
In season 1 of Quantico, the henley is the official uniform of trainee FBI agents. While this isn’t the case IRL, Quantico costume designer Sami Rattner explained to Entertainment Weekly why she chose this garment:
“The real FBI uniforms aren’t that attractive and our cast is so hot and you want them to look great. We had to ask ourselves, ‘What are the tasks they’ll have to do in these clothes and does it make sense for the training?'” Once again, this comes down to just how much a henley can convey, with Rattner pointing to the slight shifts in how you can alter the way your shirt looks “The henleys give the cast the ability to have a little variety in the way they wear their uniforms. You can have a few buttons open, or you can push up the sleeves.”
Other recent TV/film examples featuring prominent henley usage include Dexter (Michael C. Hall), who wears one as part of his kill uniform; it makes him look completely unassuming in contrast to the pastel button-down shirts he wears while doing police work. Before John Wick (Keanu Reeves) returns to the job he can’t quite leave behind and the tailored suits that come with the territory, his soot-stained henley is the only shirt he has left, giving off the impression of rugged anonymity. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) also works this angle and attempts to blend in with his standard outfit of hoodie, henley, and jeans. And that’s part of why costume designers use it so frequently; it is an everyday item with a twist and can convey a lot, from physicality to the mindset of the character who is wearing it.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a shirt that functioned as both sleepwear and activewear in its early life is still just as versatile two centuries later. The henley is no longer worn by rowers on the water, but, if The CW is to be believed, it is still very much a garment that suggests physical activity. At the same time, because it started life as an undershirt, there is an inherent loungewear connotation; you’ll find it stocked in this section in many a store, and brands such as Victoria’s Secret include them in pajama sets. Whether you’re a college student, vampire, zombie, superhero, or simply looking for an alternate to a polo, T-shirt or button-down, the henley is the choose-your-own-adventure of shirts.