From Rowing to Runways: The classic blazer is a wardrobe staple, but where did it come from, and when did it become such a unisex favorite? As Cabana unveils an elegant collection of garments with blazer-queens, Blazé Milano, Sarah Hyde explores the history of this much-loved jacket.


Sketch, blazer, 1978 haute couture collection © Yves Saint Laurent


School children screw them up to make football posts, preppy types wear them like a badge of honor and adults of both genders reach for them like trusted friends, combining with anything and everything from jeans and flannel trousers, to skirts, shorts, or fishnet stockings and heels. Of course, we are talking about the blazer here, but do you actually know the origins of this ever-versatile, much-loved jacket?

There is a popular myth that the name ‘blazer’ came from the jackets worn by the crew aboard HMS Blazer in the 19th century. A nice story, but not true. Although it’s hard to deny the visual similarity with naval uniforms, the term first came into usage in 1850, to describe a light jacket, bright red in color, worn by the Lady Margaret’s Rowing Club at Christ Church College, Cambridge. The rowers passed along the River Cam in a blaze of flaming red, and thus, the ‘blazer’ was born.

Rowing took hold of Oxbridge colleges and, in the days before “sportswear”, crew members wore short simple jackets that were easy to move in, warming during chilly training sessions and, significantly, marked club identity, ensuring spectators could identify teams from afar. On and off the river, the jackets conveyed sporting prowess, and their owners soon chose to wear these comfortable coats outside of training.


A velvet blazer, Blazé Milano x Cabana


By the 1890s, the term blazer was in common use and the idea had been picked up by other sports clubs. Perhaps the attraction of these early boating blazers was their bright and contrasting colors, or maybe they were popular with Victorian undergraduates because they gave sartorial expression to the inner exotic bird that seems to reside within even the quietest of English men.

Today, if you want to see male peacockery and British pageantry in its full fig, simply visit the Henley Royal Regatta. To the uninitiated, a harmless spectacle of stripes, colors and British Tradition, but to those who know, one of the most visually stratified social events in the UK calendar. For each blazer confers a specific status and identity to the wearer, ensuring that the Regatta - one of the last bastions of the UK class system - remains a rainbow-colored display containing a hidden social semaphore: each blazer has been earned from a rowing club, public school, or university. 

Innocents, please do not be fooled; condition is not everything (the smartest Dutch rowers pride themselves on the raggedy heirloom nature of their boat club jackets). However, in this context, it is authenticity that rules supreme. To be caught out and exposed as an imposter would be caddish to the point of social suicide.


Cambridge colleges seen from the River Cam, Cambridge


Then, there are the Nautical and Royal associations, which brought this easy-to-wear jacket to public attention. It was Edward VII - the cigar smoking lover of many and national style leader - and his less lucky Royal Cousin, Tsar Nicholas, who, on holiday in the Isle of Wight, gave the single and double-breasted Navy-blazer-with-white-trousers ensemble the international playboy Royal seal of approval. Under Edward VII’s patronage, the blazer was established as appropriate summer leisure wear, alongside a yachting lifestyle, for playboys of any age.  

On the other side of the pond, during the jazz age, the blazer was adopted by the early style-setters and tastemakers at Princeton, which, along with its prestigious Ivy League Rowing associations, took this modern look to the heart of the American Establishment. Adopted by matinee idols as the daywear of choice, the silver screen quickly turned this new smart-casual style into an everyday aspiration.

Single or double breasted, though? Undoubtedly one of the greatest debates for blazer wearers. While there is no definitive answer to this sartorial dilemma, it would seem, generally speaking, that real style aficionados tend to go for a double-breasted look. While the original rowing jackets were mostly single breasted, there were also several double-breasted ones; the choice one makes is purely down to personal taste, and essentially depends on whether you like your jacket open or buttoned up.


Velvet blazer and pants, Cabana x Blazé Milano


Soon enough, what was good for the boys became good for the girls. According to the team at Milan-based fashion label, Blazé Milano, it was Gabrielle Chanel who, in the early 1920s, feminised the blazer when she created clothes for modern, emancipated women. Chanel’s clear-sighted vision of the future expressed itself through smart appropriation and adaptation of classic items from the male wardrobe. These key elements were simplified, then made elegant, and chic. Chanel taught her clients how to style their clothes and smother themselves in jewels, both costume and real, to give the perfectly cut blazers personality, luxury, and drama.

In the years that followed, Yves Saint Laurent turned Haute Couture inside out with “The Smoking Jacket“ causing a sensation. Saint Laurent’s genius lay in cutting male styles in such a way that graced the female figure. This sensual, sensitive tailoring was often likened to a lover’s touch and these feminised masculine styles, including the blazer, were irresistibly flattering. Ushering in a new era of the trouser suit, Saint Laurent took women into the 21st century. 

Blazé Milano, for their part, are taking this idea into the future. Established in 2013, by former Elle Italia stylists Corrada Rodriguez D’acri, Delfina Pinardi and Maria Sole Torlonia, the company’s initial raison d’être, and still a primary focus, is the blazer - specifically, the luxurious, contemporary iteration of the garment.


Tweed wool blazer, Blazé Milano x Cabana


A reliable, elegant wardrobe staple for women who, like the company’s founders, are both stylish and practical, Blazé Milano’s blazers are manufactured in the finest Milanese tradition with distinctive tailoring. “We’ve always loved old grandfather blazers and super masculine tailoring at Blazé”, says co-founder Corrada Rodriguez D’acri, “and then mixing these elements with Italian fashion heritage - vintage fabrics, silks - for an elegant twist” 

Indeed, this combination of soft silks, luxurious fabrics and the classic blazer is the foundation of Blazé Milano’s new collaboration with Cabana. The collection features a highly curated capsule of Italian-made garments, including silk dresses and, of course, two blazers - one in a classic wool tweed, the other in a deep blue velvet. “Cabana has always been one of my biggest inspirations, and I have been thinking and dreaming about this collaboration for many years,” says Rodriguez D’acri. 

Both brands are represented in the capsule with artful combinations of color, pattern, material and form. “To combine our two worlds, we chose vintage fabrics from the incredible archive of [heritage Italian textile company], Mantero 1902, and reworked them, adding the things we each love at Blazé.”

From Rowing to the Runway, it’s clear the humble blazer - albeit never with humble beginnings - is an enduring wardrobe staple that’s here to stay. Constantly evolving to suit modern taste and lifestyles, yes, but the blazer’s essential character and tailored lines remain unchanged. In every way, a true classic.