Last year tennis player Serena Williams surprised the public by going to the court in ballet tutus, created in conjunction with the Off-White brand. Championship officials often criticize Williams' fashion quest, citing the history, tradition, and rules of tennis. Fans, on the other hand, appreciate her bold choice. This situation once again raised the question of whether athletes have the right to fashion experiments within the court, and how it came about that tennis clothing became part of our daily wardrobe. Understanding the links between fashion and tennis.
Text: Anna Eliseeva
How it all started
Tennis has been popular since the Victorian era: the first Wimbledon tournament was held in 1877. But the uniform we were accustomed to did not appear immediately - players of different genders performed for a long time in casual clothes that corresponded to the current fashion. The men wore simple long-sleeved shirts and trousers. For women, it was more difficult: an ordinary tennis suit of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a long dress with a corset and a bustle (a special patch under the skirt to add pomp) and a hat.
The inconvenience of such clothing for sports, it would seem, is obvious. In 1881, the Rational Dress Society appeared in London, which spoke out against clothing that hindered movement and was harmful to health (including corsets and high heels). For tennis players, activists suggested introducing bloomer-style suits - these are short skirts and puffy pantaloons. But public opinion played a role: women's breeches were considered "unattractive." For example, in a 1903 tennis textbook, women were advised to look their best on the court. Then the white color was already generally accepted for tennis clothes and served not only practical purposes, but also aesthetic - it was believed that it was less hot and no sweat stains were visible.
Of course, you couldn't play in such outfits forever. In 1919, the first fashion scandal occurred on the court: the twenty-year-old French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen appeared at the Wimbledon match in a shocking outfit for that time: a simple T-shirt with short sleeves, a pleated skirt below the knees and a panama hat. No corset or even a petticoat. The press dubbed Lenglen's image "obscene", but this did not affect her game - the Frenchwoman won the Wimbledon championship more than once, as well as the French Open and won three Olympic medals.
After that incident, the tennis player also wore sleeveless T-shirts, sports shoes with rubber soles, and a regular bandage instead of a hat. The vector of tennis fashion has finally turned towards simplicity and practicality. In the 30s, athlete Bunny Austin was the first to appear on the court in shorts. At the same time, legendary tennis player Rene Lacoste founded his own brand to create comfortable and breathable polos for tennis players. He used a dense cotton pique fabric that is breathable and has an unusual textured texture. Today this material is considered traditional for polo.
With each passing decade, athletes' clothing has become more and more functional. Therefore, it was not surprising that a pool of brands appeared that produced exclusively polo. So, in the 50s, another legendary tennis player, Fred Perry, who launched the brand of the same name, decided to release his shirts with short sleeves. Interestingly, Lacoste and Perry initially created only white polos, which were intended to be worn on the court. But with the rise in popularity of preppy style in the US and the fashion movement in the UK, short-sleeved shirts smoothly flowed into the casual wardrobe, and companies expanded the color palette - now they could be bought in a variety of shades.
Sports uniforms, already more familiar to us, began to appear only in the 1970s.But even in the 90s, casual fashion still dominated the tennis court: just look at the player Andre Agassi, who combined denim shorts, neon bicycles, a bright T-shirt and bulky sports glasses - all the current fashion attributes.
How tennis made its way into the everyday wardrobe
Tennis and casual fashion have always influenced each other, so it comes as no surprise to see polos, rubber-soled cotton sneakers, ultrashort cycling shorts and visors in our wardrobes.
It is noteworthy that despite the popularity of Fred Perry among fans of elegant clothes, the brand was noticed back in the 60s by representatives of alternative subcultures, including skinheads and punks. They paired classic solid polos with coarse Dr. Martens and other attributes of the subcultural style. Moreover, Fred Perry became so integrated into the DNA of various alternative movements that they were presented with the brand's clothing as a characteristic distinctive feature until now (you can read more about this here).
In classic polo, much later you could see Britpop performers: Blur, Oasis and Ocean Color Scene. And among the fans of Fred Perry were all those who built a career in the 90s and early 2000s: actor Evan McGregor, singer Gwen Stefani, musicians Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse and many others.
Nowadays, elements of traditional tennis are appearing on the catwalk and on the streets. Tennis shoes from brands like the Tretorn and Wilson sports sneakers, including for professional athletes, can be seen every now and then in reports from fashion weeks.
The evolution of brands that were once associated exclusively with tennis is also curious. For example, Lacoste became an ultra-modern brand (in March 2019, former chief designer Joseph Louise Trotter was appointed as the creative director of the brand), but it has not lost its traditions - you can still find white polos and visors in their lookbooks, albeit in an unexpected stylization. …
Even brands that are far from the topic of sports are inspired by tennis. Back in 2017, Gucci's Alessandro Michele showed models wearing headbands reminiscent of a sports tennis accessory. Now a similar one can be found at Marine Serre, and at Dior.
At the same time, tennis outfits are often fashionable experiments - remember the Nike dress with elements of the traditionally “masculine” tuxedo, which Maria Sharapova wore in 2008, or the sporty lace sundress, in which Venus Williams appeared in 2010.
What are the requirements for the form today
In 1985, American tennis player Anne White decided to wear a shiny one-piece retro-futuristic jumpsuit at Wimbledon, usually complementing it with a bandana. The organizers asked the athlete to choose a more traditional outfit the next day. By the way, overalls are still considered not only undesirable, but also "unacceptable" in some tournaments. In 2018, Serena Williams chose a black Nike compression bodysuit for the French Open to prevent blood clots. Later, the tournament introduced a new dress code for players, prohibiting such jumpsuits. “You have to respect the game and the place,” said the then president of the championship, Bernard Giudicelli.
“With the exception of Wimbledon, women can compete in shorts, skirts and dresses in different colors. From accessories, you can wear anything you like, as long as the player himself is comfortable. For example, Maria Sharapova loved to perform in large earrings, and Svetlana Kuznetsova - in a bandana. Serena Williams is a lover of experiments with form, but even for her most daring outfits there were no penalties,”says tennis coach Daria Panferova.
Indeed, the Wimbledon tournament has particularly strict rules. Since the 60s, athletes have been asked to dress in "predominantly white" uniforms, in the 90s - "almost completely white", and today - in exclusively white. Moreover, all the details of the outfit, right down to the underwear, must match this color.So, in 2013, the organizers of the tournament asked tennis player Roger Federer to change his sneakers, which had a bright orange sole. “At Wimbledon, a fine or even denial of entry to the competition is possible for non-observance of the color of the uniform. Sometimes strict rules reached the point of absurdity. For example, players could be forced to change during training if they were wearing black clothes,”says Daria. Such meticulous attention to detail is due to the conservatism of the tournament - tennis fans want to preserve the tradition and elegance of this sport.
But not everything is so simple and with the female tennis uniform in general. The author of The New York Times noted that although women today are not obliged to wear skirts on the court, in most cases the form is a dress or their imitation. She cites the example of the outfit of the athlete Simona Halep, who combined tight shorts and a tunic with slits, reminiscent of a tiny sundress. In tennis, women are almost always wanted to be “feminine”, and today's notions of uniform still cling to outdated traditions. Think of tennis legend Billie Jean King, who, at the age of eleven, was banned from taking a group photo at one of the tournaments because she wore shorts instead of a skirt.
Many tennis fans are in favor of preserving the traditional form, which is why any fashionable experiments of Serena Williams still cause so much discussion. After criticism of her jumpsuit by officials, the tennis player decided to wear a traditionally feminine outfit at the US Open: a ballet tutu performed by Virgil Abloh in a modern spirit in sports materials, paired with white Nike sneakers. With this release, the athlete seemed to be responding not only to perennial lookism on the part of spectators and even colleagues (the Williams sisters were more than once criticized for their athletic and unfeminine physique), but also to adherents of traditional rules in tennis, showing how irrelevant their requirements are: “Want to see femininity on the court? Here you are". “I love it when fashion becomes a means of conveying a message,” Serena said in the Nike campaign. And her message was quite clear: the individuality of an athlete is not only in the game, fashionable choice is a private matter.
No less witty response to the VIP stands is any appearance of a tennis uniform in everyday wardrobe: each of us, as she says, is able to wear a snow-white polo or creamy sneakers without getting dirty.
Photos: Fred Perry, Nike, Lacoste, loc.gov (1, 2), wikipedia