The Appeal of the Henley Shirt and How To Wear It

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The Henley was the original undershirt which eventually found its way into regular way. I mean, when you look at it, looks like a T-shirt variant of long-johns or thermal pajamas you wear when camping.  Usually made of cotton (though wool and other blends do exist based on utility), it’s basically a tee shirt just with some extra detailing.  Henleys traditionally feature ribbing on the cuffs and hem, and feature a placket front.

Those sartorial details make it almost like a cross between a tee shirt and a polo shirt, but equally neither.  Maybe that’s why it’s been so popular since it first came on the scene. And perhaps that's why Bruce Lee loved it so much.


First openly introduced as the uniform for rowers in the English town of Henley-on-Thames  in the early 1800s (see the name connection?), it soon caught on as one of the go-to base layers for the working class. You see this a lot in old pictures, where guys are wearing henleys not only workwear jackets but under their chambray workshirts.  The extra buttons meant that you could close up or open based on the weather, which made it a lot more utilitarian than just a simple tee shirt. It was also especially popular for camping and outdoorsmen and even saw some service in the military.

 

 


However, as we all know, the tee shirt eventually became the king of casual.  With a plain hem, collar, and sleeve, it was just much easier to throw on and forget about. For a long time guys didn’t want to deal with cool details to make their outfits much more interesting. Instead, they embraced blending in and being regular.  But that wasn’t the case for everyone.

If we look closely, the henley remained popular in niche subcultures, especially those that focus on rugged menswear aesthetics. Workwear guys routinely take inspiration from the pictures of old and layer over it.  Ralph Lauren himself has been a proponent of the henley, not only including it within his vintage-inspired line RRL but also wearing it underneath chambrays and plaid shirts, just like the guys of old. If you’re a big youtuber fan, you’ll also have heard influencers like Aaron Marino (of Alpha M) and Jose Zuniga (from TMF) sing the praises of the henle; even Put This On has a Henley recommendation guide for more discerning menswear enthusiasts.  But that’s not what got us at Craftsman into it.  We actually owe our love of the henley to the most influential martial artist of all time, Bruce Lee.

 

We all know that Bruce Lee dominated both on screen and in the menswear arena; we have a full blog post about his style here.  Despite rocking some great classic ivy attire and the wild disco suits in the early 70s, he was also known to rock a basic henley made by the historic Lee Kung Man factory. This SCMP article sheds some light on this little known Hong Kong manufacturer who has been making these henley shirts in the same way with the same packaging for years.  A product that is made by artisanal and traditional craftsmanship and was worn by a guy who kicked ass? We can get into it.

It's an iconic piece tied to strongly to this Master that we even stock a great ringer tee with an illustration of Bruce Lee!

 

 

Our Bruce Lee LKM Henley

It’s definitely an honor for us at Craftsman Clothing to be able to stock the iconic Bruce Lee henley made by Lee Kung Man along side our MTO suede jackets and gurkha trousers.  The henley shirt is meant to be the perfect base layer and a solo piece. It has the ribbed short-sleeve cuff traditional three button placket that is actually cut a bit deep so you can let your chest breath on a hot day (or when you’re fighting some bad guys). It also contrasts to many modern henleys, which don’t have the vintage-style deep placket and button spacing.

 

 

What makes it really special is the two ply, 8 oz. mercerised cotton, which actually means that the cotton has been treated with caustic soda, resulting in a hard wearing  yet silky cloth.  In other words, this henley is going to last you a long time and still feel soft and smooth every time you wear it. It is definitely a slimmer fit, so be sure to check the size guide or size up as needed.  Offered in camel brown and the definitive off-white, the choice is yours to make.

 

 

How To Wear It

We thank our co-founder Tsz for making these looks, which really help illustrate the versatility of the Bruce Lee Henley.  The first one is simple, just wearing the shirt with our raw denim gurkhas. It’s minimal yet interesting, which is always a great way to go when you want to look sharp and understated simultaneously. 

Tsz’s decides to play into the ruggedness by trading the denim gurkha pants with olive ones.  Olive plays into the true military roots of the gurkha pant, which actually incorporates the henley too.  However, just wearing the Bruce Lee henley on its own with olive pants can be a bit too military (or like a GI lost in time), so adding in a jacket for visual interest is the way to go.

He uses our extensive jacket collection to show off just how each one gives a different vibe.  A denim trucker jacket goes along with the workwear roots of the Henley. If you really want to dive deeper into the military heritage, you can even go for our famous suede MTO A-1 flight jacket, which is as refined as it is rugged.  And if you’re much more of an urban explorer that has a taste for classic elegance, then your obvious jacket choice is our Rakish Safari in dark brown suede.  It’s all about finding detailed alternatives to the basics.

The last look takes the formality level up a notch. By swapping out the rugged olive chino gurkha pants for navy, it provides a sophisticated take that would be perfect for creative offices or casual luncheons.  You already know how much we love wearing navy, since it’s a great way to provide a somber mood that is completely versatile. Adding in a textured sportcoat makes the look even more elevated, taking the simple henley into territory that was never seen before. Overall, the combinations are endless, all thanks to the supremely classic Bruce Lee henley. 

 

So take a page out of Bruce Lee’s playbook and grab our Henley, made proudly by the same Hong Kong factory for decades.  It’s a piece that has made its mark in rugged menswear since the 1800s and thanks to its use by some of the biggest menswear people today, it’s not going anywhere.  I mean, a classic garment that can go with everything?  Seems like a Craftsman Clothing favorite to me.

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