Although it is a year-round sport played all over the world, there is something about the summer months that gets us thinking about tennis. Some of the biggest tournaments are staged and the top players compete in what has become an increasingly competitive sport – at least in the women’s game. One of the main events of the summer is held at the All England Club in London – and the Wimbledon betting markets are already heating up in anticipation. Although majority white uniforms are still a requirement – unlike at other tournaments – tennis fashion has changed over the years.
Figure 1 Wimbledon is one of the big events on the tennis calendar
The first Ladies’ Singles competition at Wimbledon was held in 1884 and by the early 1900s the sport had become a real hit with the rich. White clothing was also associated with the well off and tennis whites became the official rule at the championships in 1890.
The uniforms were much different to what we see today though. Women wore dresses with high collars and long sleeves. These floor-length skirts and restrictive garments obviously affected the ability of the players to move and the game was played at a much slower pace as a result.
The Roaring 20s was a decade of decadence and style and the fashions of the day spilled onto the Wimbledon tennis courts to much consternation. French player Suzanne Lenglen caused a stir when she appeared in a top without sleeves and a skirt with a knee-length hemline.
Her Jean Patou-designed outfit also included a flapper girl headband and kicked off a revolution on the court as far as fashion went. By the end of the decade, new breathable fabrics were being produced that also had the advantage of being much more lightweight, improving the tennis while making the players look much better too.
Pre and Post WW2
Nothing else too dramatic happened in the women’s tennis fashion world before the outbreak of war in 1939 and the tournament was actually cancelled between 1940 and 1945. But everything changed soon after, with players starting to wear uniforms that look a little more like the ones we see today.
Gertrude Moran attracted a lot of attention in 1949 as she played in a much shorter skirt with shorts underneath. The hint of lace that peaked out of the bottom seemed to get a lot of people hot under the collar and brought in a new wave of very feminine outfits that became popular in the 1950s.
London was the place to be in the 1960s and although the prestigious Wimbledon Championships hardly exuded the cool vibe of Soho, on-court fashions were changing to keep up with what was seen on the high street. Mod fashion was all the rage and the most fashionable players did their best to keep up.
Streamlined tunic-style dresses became very popular as the design worked well in a fashion sense, as well as giving the competitor room to move in what was becoming a much faster-paced sport. Wimbledon still insisted on all white uniforms, but hints of color were spotted at other competitions.
Figure 2 The styles may have changed but the uniforms are still white at Wimbledon
The 1970s had brought tennis fans some of the first megastars that transcended the sport and earned big money from endorsements. This was the case for both the men’s and the women’s game and the rise in television ownership also meant that more fans could see what their heroes were wearing.
Everything got more bold and brash in the 1980s and some of the uniforms on the Wimbledon courts had the organizers reaching for the rulebooks. One of the most ‘outrageous’ outfits of the time was the unitard worn by Anna White in 1985. The skintight ensemble was deemed too much – and she was asked to wear something more demure the next day.
Modern Colors and Fabrics
The last 20 years have seen an explosion of color in tennis, but Wimbledon still sticks by its mostly white policy. That means that we haven’t seen some of the more daring outfits at the All England Club. But denim, lace and riotous color ways have been de rigueur in other competitions.
That is not to say that the uniforms on show have not been revealing. The top female players have always pushed the boundaries, while still respecting the traditional rules, and we have seen some bold designs in recent years. We have come a long way since the restrictive outfits of the 1900s though – and further fashion innovation is now almost guaranteed.