“When it comes to fashion, you don’t want to be a repeat offender.” — Serena Williams
The chic ladies of tennis have historically made clothing a spectator sport. In the late 1800s, on the manicured lawns of the All England Croquet Club, the invention of Lawn Tennis demanded a sophisticated wardrobe for women.
Thanks to the influence from cricket attire and lawn dresses, tennis players were required to wear all white. According to author Robert J. Lake (A Social History of Tennis in Britain) “the white was a symbol of purity and virtue.” In addition, the white attire also minimized sweat stains.
Maud Wilson won the first Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship in 1884 wearing an ankle-length white corseted dress. Six years later, the championship mandated the all-white uniform rule that remains in place today. Shop Women's White Clothing Collection
1885 (image: flickr.com)
Charlotte Dod, also known as “Lottie,” was a 15 year-old tennis sensation that wore an outfit resembling that of a school uniform when winning Wimbledon in 1887. Her older opponents debated the fairness of her clothing, claiming she had an advantage in moving around the court, free from the standard tight corset. For the first time, there was thought given to designing a different style of tennis clothes for women moving forward.
Viewed as a means of courtship for the "upper-class", appearance and style were seen as more important than comfort and maneuverability. In the early 1900s, women played tennis in high-collared dresses, floor-length skirts, stockings, and long-sleeved tops, all of which prevented range of mobility. Their wardrobes were styled after the lawn dresses often seen at garden parties and other outdoor leisure events.
1907 Portrait (image: fickr.com)
1920s – 1940s – Showing More Skin
It wasn’t until 1920 that the legendary French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen created quite the fashion statement.
During Wimbledon, Lenglen generated outrage by wearing a calf-length skirt, bare arms and a floppy hat all constructed by French designer, Jean Patou. Lenglen also wore flapper-style headbands on the court and sometimes wore a bandeau embraced with a diamond pin and white silk stockings held in place with small French coins.
Suzanne Lenglen 1920 (image: wikimedia.org)
The appearance of the former Wimbledon champion was so bizarre and shocking that the tournament relocated to larger grounds in 1922 to accommodate the crowds. Thanks to her style and personality, Lenglen became more widely acknowledged as a celebrity.
With Lenglen as a fashion pioneer for the decade, women’s tennis featured a more relaxed dress code highlighted by sleeveless blouses, higher hemlines and multiple folds in garments.
This fashion trend continued into the 1930s and women began to wear polo shirts, drop waist dresses or those cinched at the waist. On the men’s side, French tennis player Rene Lacoste began creating lightweight, breathable cotton shirts in 1933, known today as men’s polo shirts. The collars, when popped up, functioned to protect players’ necks from the sun.
Helen Wills Moody, the central player during the decade, exhibited a curtsied uniform that fit in with the free and rectangular shapes preferred by many of her opponents. She was the first American woman athlete to become a global celebrity, making friends with royalty and film stars.
1940s – 1960s – Who Wears Short Shorts?
By the 1940s, women incorporated elegant shorts for greater mobility on the court. For example, American tennis player Pauline Betz often wore a belt to tie her high-waisted shorts and short-sleeve blouse.
Pauline Betz (image: wikipedia.org)
The ladylike outfit worn by American tennis player Gertrude “Gussie” Moran at Wimbledon in 1949 was a hint of 1950s trends to come. Moran’s outfit was comprised of a ruffled top and jaw dropping lace shorts, produced by British designer Ted Tinling.
In general, women’s tennis uniforms in the 1950s were all about cinched waists, decorative cardigans, and feminine pleated skirts. This style was endorsed by Maureen Connolly who in 1953 became the first woman to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same calendar year.
1953 Maureen Connolly & Doris Hart (image: wikimedia.org)
1960s – 1980s – Modern Fashion
Mod fashion emerged in 1960s bringing about stylish modern and tailored clothing. Also during this time, the arrival of man-made fabrics and drip-dry tennis clothes were now a reality.
While Chris Everett and Evonne Goolagong were still wearing what was seen at the time as tasteful, practical feminine tennis dresses by Tinling; many people in the 70s felt that glamour had gone out women's tennis clothing to make room for practicality. Clothing manufacturers finally realized that women sweat too and began manufacturing tennis clothes with breathable fabrics, short skirts, and sports shirts. This was also the time where small sponsor logos began to prevail.
This decade was defined by women campaigning vigorously for the right to compete with men in terms of equal pay. The styles in women’s tennis during this time revealed personality, which became more of an essential factor than ever before.
In 1973, designer Tinling worked with the legendary Billie Jean King during the famed Battle of the Sexes match and with the rest of the top women’s professionals who fought for equal tennis rights. The English designer’s goal was to make them look classier in order to draw more attention to the women’s circuit.
Billie Jean King 1973 and 1978 (image: flickr.com)
1980s – 2000s – Denim and Scrunchies
Well before the infamous Serena Williams cat suit, Anne White made her name in the 80’s when she wore the first all-white, full-length bodysuit at Wimbledon. Her match was postponed until the following day and she was asked to change her clothes. Although White lost the match, television made her outfit a world-wide commodity.
The styles featured at this time tended to be more of a rebellious and individualistic nature. At the 1987 U.S. Open, American Chris Evert lost her diamond bracelet on the court during a match.
During the 90’s, the popular German champion Steffi Graf was often seen wearing a matching colourful and floral skirt, polo and hair scrunchie. Generally, this decade was all about loud colours, designs and scrunchies.
Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf after the US Open final match 1990 (image: wikimedia.org)
There was a delay in the turnover time getting apparel to consumers. After a player won a big event on television, various companies would get flooded with phone calls from the public, wanting the exact outfit worn during the championship match, causing a backlog on orders. Shortly after the start of the internet in the mid-90s, strategic marketing plans gravitated towards a direct-to-consumer approach.
2000s – 2010s – Material Changes
During this era, brand endorsements became one of the biggest influences of modern tennis flair and apparel for top players. Brands like adidas and Nike carefully planned for major events as far as six months in advance.
Venus and Serena Williams changed the fashion scene by introducing polyester and nylon material, known for their lightweight durability and technical fabrics that draw moisture away from the body.
At the 2002 U.S. Open, Serena Williams made waves in her first cat suit, designed by Puma. Williams ended up winning the tournament in the tight mini, black jumpsuit, with a $29,000 Harry Winston bracelet dangling on her wrist.
As innovation in fabric improved, tennis apparel began to evolve with elements of sun protection. First popular in Australia, lightweight and breathable UV protection fabrics became standard for most major sportswear companies in 2006. The fabrics used a combination of weave, color, the best ingredients found in sunscreens as well as millions of the sun-bouncing minerals, titanium oxide and zinc oxide infused at the fibre. Shop Women's UV Protection Clothing
The now retired Maria Sharapova was another predominant figure to emerge onto the fashion scene. At 2008 Wimbledon, Sharapova revealed the Nike “Tuxedo,” ensemble, which was basically a blazer jacket that she played in during her warm-up. Serena Williams, a long-time rival of Sharapova, also displayed a tuxedo-style blouse at the tournament.
Maria Sharapova in action against Stéphanie Foretz in the first round of the 2008 Wimbledon Championships (image: wikimedia.org)
In addition, recently retired Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark was known for her very feminine adidas by Stella McCartney dresses. Wozniacki wore her first dress by the label at the 2009 U.S. Open. The dress had ruffles at the bottom, characteristic of a ballerina skirt. However, over the years, Wozniacki endorsed more tight fitting dresses for match play and a crop tops with high rise leggings during practice.
Caroline Wozniacki at the 2009 US Open (image: wikimedia.org)
2010s – 2020s – Pushing the Envelope
During the last decade, tennis fashion took a more scandalous approach and pushed the envelope style boundaries. A primary example was in 2010, when Venus Williams wore a lingerie-like, black-lace dress with red outlining, designed by Williams for her fashion label, EleVen.
Venus Williams at the 2010 US Open (image: wikimedia.org)
In 2015, Sharapova’s “Nike Maria Paris dress,” became quite a hit. The tennis dress was integrated with Dri-FIT technology, keeping moisture away. It was designed with a thin T-back, which showed off an almost bare back and allowed for a lot of movement. The white tank top connected to a frilled blue mini skirt.
Sharapova Paris Dress 2015 (image: nike.com)
A couple of years later, at the U.S. Open, Sharapova dazzled the crowd with an elegant black lace Nike dress designed by Riccardo Tisci. The dress was known largely for the countless sparkling Swarovski crystals.
During the 2016 French Open, Serena Williams began the trend of adding longer leggings to her attire underneath her blue Nike dress. A few months later, at the U.S. Open, Serena Williams also started wearing compression sleeves on both arms, eventually creating her own style with this look. The compression sleeve initially arose from Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic, who wore one during the 2014 Miami Masters as a means to keep the sunlight away from a rash on his arm. Raonic liked the look and continued to wear the one sleeve for a period of time afterwards.
Two years later the famous Wakanda-inspired black catsuit came to fruition at the French Open. Serena Williams justified the new outfit as being designed to help prevent blood clots, an ongoing issue for the tennis superstar. Unfortunately, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli banned the ensemble. Following this controversy, Williams launched a black tutu skirt for the U.S. Open made by Off-White and Nike.
Serena Williams Rolland Garros 2018 (image: nike.com)
In 2019, adidas devoted itself to producing apparel that was more sustainable and eco-friendly overall. Their important partnership was initially formed with Parley for the Oceans in 2015 and two years later, adidas sold 1 million pairs of sneakers made from ocean waste. The marine plastic waste is processed and converted to polyester yarn, which is then used to create high performance sportswear.
Parley Clothing and Footwear group (image: merchantoftennis.com)
According to Serena Williams stylist, Kesha McLeod, “Tennis has long been influenced by fashion and what we see Serena wearing today is what we want to wear in everyday life. The power of her style goes far beyond the court.” The development of tennis fashion has become a force to be reckoned with.