As French open tickets fly out the door, there is perhaps no better time to take a retrospective look through tennis-court style. After all, it is written in The Guardian ‘tennis is arguably the most elegant and beautiful of all the sports – the Wimbledon whites, the balletic grace, the absence of unsightly mud’ proving the sport more than worthy of a consideration.
Practical and comfortable, yes – but in no way uniform; tennis outfits have evolved in a way that mirrors fashion. Of course, advances in technology have aided this change. Spandex, nylon, and other synthetic materials for example, created a means to wick away perspiration.
This is a far cry from what athletes were wearing 100 years ago. As fashion historian and co-author of She’s Got Legs: A History of Hemlines and Fashion, Keren Ben-Horin explains:
“When Victorian women played tennis in the 1880s and 1890s, they were wearing their street clothes, which included heavy undergarments like corsets, bustles and petticoats.”
Tennis grew popular in Victorian England and sportswear matched the fashion of the day: dresses with high collars, floor-length hems and long sleeves to match. It was in this time “Tennis whites” became a rule, with Wimbledon mandating an all-white uniform rule for its players in 1890. It wasn’t long before white clothing, which dirties easily, became a symbol of the rich – much like tennis itself.
French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen caused quite a stir when she dared to play Wimbledon with bare arms, a knee-length skirt and a flapper-style headband to finish. It was in this decade that French tennis player Rene Lacoste created lightweight, breathable cotton shirts (now known as polo shirts) and begun mass-producing them in 1933.
In this era, American tennis player Gertrude Moran wore an ultrafeminine outfit at Wimbledon, 1949 – which set the tone for the style of the 1950s (think cinched waists and decorative cardigans) famously sporting a ruffled top and shorts with lace-trimming. The shorts were designed by British couturier, Ted Tinling and photographers would lay on the ground to try to get a snap of the lace.
Tennis uniforms were largely influenced by Mod fashion in this decade and streamlined tunics with pops of gingham were popular. Popular too were graphic shorts, worn by English players such as Virginia Wade and Lorna Greville-Collins. A more structured look than the terrycloth headbands and colourful striped polo shirts of the 1970s.
An unconventional time for many fashions – the height of the 1980s encouraged tennis uniforms to become tighter and leaner. Take American tennis player, Anne White for example. At Wimbledon, 1985 the sportswomen donned a bright-white unitard to play. It was reported officials requested that she dress more traditionally thereafter.
This period harks back to the traditional – but with a twist. Think Maria Sharapova’s early 2000s outfits, which included menswear elements and a smattering of Swarovski crystals. Nude shorts, pleated shift dresses and high-collared dresses are further staples, which often come paired with a player’s personal flair.
Yes, tennis fashion brings us endless style – and opportunity – as it transitions through time. Here’s to Venus Williams’ 2010 lingerie-inspired black outfit, which she wore to the French Open!