Jack Carlson is a former rowing team captain at Georgetown and Oxford, and a member of the U.S. rowing team. He founded Rowing Blazers in 2017 in a stylish nod to the traditional British sport jacket. While earning his doctorate in archaeology at Oxford, Carlson had set out to publish a tome on the dandy jackets worn by rowers for centuries. But realizing these colorful tribal totems would translate beyond collegiate sportsmanship, Carlson launched a menswear line based on the traditional blazers. Since then, the line has grown to include oxford shirts, tees, accessories, and even women’s blazers. Now Carlson is venturing beyond the boathouse with an eye on another British sportsman staple—the rugby shirt. Already established as a popular menswear standard, Carlson explains how he has revived the shirt in its original 19th-century glory.
How does your background in archaeology play into your menswear brand?
Archaeology is the study of the past through objects—physical things. At Oxford, I specialized in the physical trappings of power, identity, and belonging. So in some ways, it’s not such a long jump to studying clothing. With the brand, I obsess over doing the research—studying and collecting vintage blazers and rugby research, learning about the stories behind them. This is very important for Rowing Blazers as a brand, and really is a type of archaeology. And the point isn’t to recreate something old for the sake of being costume-y, quite the opposite—by really studying and understanding the past we are able to do things that are cool and innovative, and do them the right way.
You are an accomplished rower. Did you ever play rugby?
No. One of the criteria for being an elite level coxswain and racing at the World Championships was maintaining a weight of around 120 lbs. Sadly, I think this is also one of the key criteria that disqualifies a person from playing rugby! One of the key guys on our team, Joe, who oversees all of our club and team partnerships, plays competitive rugby.
What do the double eagle, anchor, and Tudor rose badges mean?
These were all badges of other houses within Rugby School—the high school in England where the game of rugby was born. The easiest way to explain it to an American reader, I suppose, is to say it’s like a real-life Hogwarts with its various houses. Each house has its own emblem. Schoolhouse, which was the main boarding house used the skull and crossbones as its badge.
Are these symbols still used by Rugby teams?
Yes, these symbols are still used by many of the houses at Rugby School today. British schools are very good at keeping up traditions. Badges like these and the badges on our rugby shirts (the Prince of Wales’ feathers on the Welsh rugby shirt, the thistle for Scotland, etc.) are like catnip for me. Heraldry (the study of coats of arms) and vexillology (the study of flags) are important interests of mine—I used to help design coats of arms for people and institutions at the College of Arms in London.
What fabrics are you using?
They are all made from heavyweight (14 oz.) organic cotton, all knit in the traditional 12-gauge style and retail for $185 each.
Is there any connection between the strips in rugby shirts and the stripes on rowing blazers?
Yes! They are both legacies of the origin of much of modern menswear in the world of traditional British sport. The blazer as we know it—and also the word “blazer”—originated in college rowing clubs at Oxford and Cambridge, where casual, unlined jackets were made in bright college colors, essentially as warm-up jackets and team uniforms. One of these jackets, made in “blazing” red wool flannel was nicknamed the blazer. Likewise, the rugby shirt originated at a boarding school in England, Rugby School, and was made in narrow hoop stripes in house colors. And of course, the name of the school and the sport it produced gave us the name we now use for this style of shirt.