Summer 2020 will mark the first missed Wimbledon tournament since World War II. The annual tennis championship was originally scheduled to begin June 29, but was cancelled due to the coronavirus. While no one will be taking the famed grass courts this year, tennis clubs have begun to reopen around the world, as the minimal physical contact required for the racquet sport makes it one of the safer activities in the era of social distancing. With the sport comes the inevitable dress code of tennis whites, a phenomenon that has been imposed on pros and fascinated fans for decades. One look at the culturally rich history of donning all-white proves that getting dressed for a game of tennis hasn’t always been as simple as game-set-match.
Originally, tennis looked a lot different from the modern form we know today. In the 12th century, monks used to hit balls back and forth using their hands. This pastime evolved into a nascent version of tennis called jeu de paume, which took shape in the 15th and 16th centuries among French and English aristocrats. King Henry VIII enjoyed the game so much that he commissioned tennis courts on the grounds of one of his palaces. He and his courtiers played wearing tights and breeches, outfits that differed only slightly from typical daywear.
At the height of the Victorian era in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the game evolved to resemble modern-day tennis, crossing the Atlantic to the U.S. There, wealthy Americans played in their day clothes, which included bustles, dress hats, and gloves for women. The restrictive nature of these outfits became a cause for concern as female players yearned for better mobility and flexibility.
In the 1870s, the ubiquitous white emerged in women’s tennis uniforms. Drawing upon the silhouettes of lawn dresses, the monochrome look featured garments made of cotton and linen, with feminine lace inserts and adorned with embroidery. Because the tennis lawn was one of the few places where men and women could freely interact with one another, women were constantly on display, and particularly through fashion.
The dress code was soon engrained in professional tennis. The first Wimbledon was held in 1877 outside of London by the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, which issued a rule for all players to wear white. The only event was men’s singles, with women’s and doubles categories added in 1884. After that, the 20th century saw a surge of tennis tournaments, as matches became televised and its popularity spread.
Both competitive and recreational tennis came to represent a social elitism in America and England, where the color white became a symbol of status and leisure. Today, white makes a logical choice for athletes because it is known to reflect the entire spectrum of light and thus absorb less heat, leaving its wearer cooler in the sun’s rays. Of course, performance-wear materials help with this, too, but when players didn’t have technical activewear in the early 20th century, white was heralded because it efficiently concealed sweat, which was seen as unclean and low-class.
White also demonstrated one’s wealth because it dirties easily–an issue for domestic and factory laborers engaged in manual labor. Therefore, wearing white indicated status in a two-fold way: on the practical level, one was clean of dirt; but more so, they were clean of the lowly stigma that came with working. White thus became associated with the rich (and so-called white collar jobs), because it meant one could afford to live above the working class–not to mention, pay for the high membership fees for lawn and tennis clubs.
The tournament dress codes have made for decades of sartorial rebellion among tennis pros, especially among women. In 1919, French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen was chastised at Wimbledon for wearing a calf-length silk skirt, short sleeves, and a floppy hat. While she abided by the white mandate, her exposed arms and legs caused a stir. She went on to win the tournament (and eight total Grand Slam titles) despite facing opposition, and even created her own look, called the “Lenglen bandeau,” which was a tulle head wrap fastened with a diamond-encrusted pin.
When American player Gertrude “Gussie” Moran hit the courts in 1949, she set out to upend tradition by asking if she could compete in a colorful dress. Unsurprisingly, Wimbledon officials held their ground, but so did she. Moran channelled the rising hemlines of the time by donning a short dress intended to flash spectators, who were appalled at her ruffled lace knickers styled by Wimbledon host and fashion designer Ted Tinling.
Among male players, American tennis pro Andre Agassi famously boycotted Wimbledon for three years, from 1988 through 1990, in reaction to the all-white dress code. Agassi was known to sport neon-accented athletic-wear on the court and, for a time, refused to conform to the tournament’s traditionalism. In 2013, Swiss tennis star Roger Federer received criticism for wearing orange-soled sneakers at Wimbledon, and spoke out against the rules, saying, “My personal opinion: I think it’s too strict.”
Today, dress continues to dictate the London tournament. In 2019, the Wimbledon handbook read, “players’ clothing on court, including shoes, for all competitions and for practice on the championship courts must be almost entirely white,” echoing almost verbatim what was issued back in 1877. Though the three other Grand Slam tennis tournaments (the U.S., French, and Australian Open) have made room for colorful fashion experimentation among stars like sisters Serena and Venus Williams, Wimbledon sides with tradition.
Serena has made waves in recent years as a fashion-forward thinker on the courts. At last year’s Wimbledon tournament, Williams continued her partnership with Nike and wore a white knit dress featuring the Broosh–a bespoke take on the brand’s Swoosh logo, encrusted with no less than 34 Swarovski crystals. The small but mighty embellishment proved a way for the star to skate around the all-white dress code, adding a powerful personal touch. Williams also collaborated with Off-White Creative Director Virgil Abloh for her 2019 French Open looks, including a lavender dress with a tutu, and a poncho covered in the French words for “Queen,” “Champion,” and “Mum.” The colorful, feminist looks emphasized the room for personal expression allowed in other Grand Slam tournaments.
Outside the confines of Wimbledon, tennis has woven its way into fashion more than any other sport. One garment synonymous with tennis is the polo: a short-sleeve, knitted cotton pique shirt invented in the 1920s by world-class player Jean Rene Lacoste. In 1933, Lacoste founded his eponymous brand and began selling his polo shirts, recognized by the iconic crocodile logo, as Lacoste was known as “the Crocodile” on the courts. They have since become a fixture at American country clubs and appeared as a sporty staple in pop culture. The crocodile dotted Gwyneth Paltrow’s many polo dresses in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and has made cameos in many other film costumes. Recently, Lacoste Creative Director Louise Trotter has reinvigorated the brand with a modern twist, redefining preppy on her runways, especially in her debut Fall/Winter 2019 collection, which featured distressed logos and chunky knit polos amidst a green haze.
Lacoste is not the only brand channelling the courts for the catwalk. Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection for Hermès Spring/Summer 2010 featured sporty looks in caramel, navy, and deep red, combining leather and mesh for deconstructed tennis dresses. Alexander Wang transformed the Spring/Summer 2015 runway into a sports arena, using sneakers as a recurring theme to show the edgy side of sportswear through miniskirts with tiny pleats and leather tennis dresses with laces. For a literal tennis motif, Alessandro Michele breathed new life into Gucci’s logo for Pre-Fall 2019 by emblazoning a sweatshirt with cross-laced racquets.
Whether seen as restricting, classy, or traditional, tennis whites as seen on the grassy courts of Wimbledon and the red clay of private country clubs are steeped in a revealing history. The dress code of the social distancing sport of choice hasn’t been without resistance over the years, but it continues to define the pastime’s elite status.END
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