Tennis dress criticism is no new phenomenon

Illustration by Franny Kline

By Annie Erickson

When imagining a tennis player’s outfit, one might think of the strictly white getups or, at least, some sort of unassuming athletic clothing. This image was mainly created because of the strict uniform guidelines that have been in place.

Each professional tournament has an individual set of rules regarding uniforms. For example, the current Wimbledon uniform code stipulates that, “A single trim of colour around the neckline and around the cuff of the sleeve is acceptable but must be no wider than one centimetre.”

This strict standard for uniformity has endured mainly because it has evolved with the times. In the 1920s, it was controversial for French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen to show her calves and arms while playing tennis. Over time, the expectations for modesty loosened. Women tennis players are now free to dress fashionably and comfortably, given they adhere to certain logo and measurement restrictions.

With this evolution of restrictions and growth of fashion in tennis, a discussion about sexism and double standards has arisen. Women began playing the sport at a time when modest dressing was a prerequisite for social acceptance. From the 1880s to the 1920s women wore heavy dresses with long sleeves, a high neck and even a corset. Needless to say, comfort was not the main goal. At the same time, men wore flannel pants or shorts and there was little to no focus on their outfits. A clear double standard between men and women’s tennis uniform policies was also seen when Alize Cornet took off her shirt in the middle of the game in order to readjust it during the 2018 US Open. She was penalized, where as, many male tennis players are known to take off their shirts mid-match with no penalties at all.

Clearly, a persisting feature throughout women’s tennis fashion history is the presence of controversy. Lenglen’s calf display was one of the first of many. In 1949, Gertrude Moran showed the lace in her undergarments. Anna Kournikova showed her midriff in 2002 and caused a stir. The main problem people had with all of these outfits was the way that they “inappropriately” revealed the players’ bodies. An All-England Club Committee even accused Gertrude Moran of bringing “vulgarity and sin” to the game of tennis. The obvious connection between these controversies is the way they objectify women.

A new facet of women’s tennis fashion incited contention when Serena Williams wore a black catsuit to the May 26th French Open. According to a CNN article, Williams’ outfit was said to be inspired by the movie Black Panther and meant to help her blood circulate, preventing clots. Williams had recently gone through a difficult pregnancy and had a pulmonary embolism following the birth of her daughter Alexis, making her more susceptible to clots blocking blood flow to her lungs. Immediately after the tournament, the French Open instituted rules to prevent catsuits like Williams’ from being worn at the event again. Tennis official Bernard Fiducelli’s comment on the issue: “One must respect the game and place.” With this recent controversy and the many of the past, it is evident that women’s tennis faces a different standard when it comes to regulation and clothing.

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