The U.S. Open enters its second day of competition mired in the COVID-19 pandemic and the athlete protests that have swept the sports world in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. With no spectators allowed at Flushing Meadow and many of the top players sitting the tournament out — including Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Ashleigh Barty and Simone Halep — this year’s Open may lack some of the excitement of recent years.
But from casual spectators to diehard loyalists with courtside or promenade seating, the international tennis tournament has always doubled as an unofficial fashion show. With an average of 1.27 million viewers watching last year’s tournament live over the course of two weeks, the players’ on-court attire resonates with fans and designers. Their choices also are emblematic of societal changes, according to tennis legend Billie Jean King. From the Victorian era’s corseted tennis requirements for women to the current less-restrictive, body-baring styles, tennis attire is indicative of the freedoms that have been fought for.
“Take the 1800s to now, tennis fashion shows the progress that we have made in society and in our world. That’s why I like it — it reflects what’s going on in the world,” King said.
Through the 20th century to today, the sport of tennis has provided a unique multilevel platform for the marketing of branded product via the player, the fans, and the fashion world. As companies strive to be more inclusive, they are partnering with players of different backgrounds to appeal to a wider customer base than the traditional country club set. The notion that tennis — like other sports — can be highly political has been ingrained for decades. In recent days, billion-dollar brands like Nike and Adidas have voiced their support for athletes, who are using their platforms for justice. Naomi Osaka’s decision last Wednesday to not compete in the rest of the Western & Southern Open was based on what she called “the continued genocide of Black people.” Explaining her stance on Twitter, the 22-year-old Nike-sponsored athlete said she didn’t expect anything drastic to happen by not playing, but “if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction.”
Interestingly, since its inception, tennis has been accepted as a suitable sport for everyone. The on-court or off-the-court branded tennis fashions have always been an impressive ally to designers from the high street to fast fashion.
Stan Smith spoke of the sport’s lasting appeal: “Both the players — men and women — and the fans are going to be influenced by what they see on the court. The players are not in uniforms. They’re not wearing helmets. They’re readily recognized on the street. It’s very international so there’s a very international influence on what the players might wear.”
Tennis’ fashion influence has been covered by WWD since the early 1900s. Early articles cast a light on the lack of functionalism in the first few generations of tennis fashion for men and women. There are also references to the many mishaps and innovations continuing to follow the sport’s fashion legacy. Two of those silhouettes are permanent fixtures to the unofficial uniform of the game.
The first innovation came from player-turned-manufacturer René “the Crocodile” Lacoste in 1923. His loose pique knit, flat unstarched collared shirt with sleeves ending at the elbow, (and decorated with its famed crocodile logo) changed the game by allowing the players to have greater range of motion.
The second comes directly in the form of style. Tennis player Susanne Lenglen’s on- and off-the-court play and style reverberated throughout designer collections and women’s wardrobes beginning in the Twenties and is still very much in fashion today. Lenglen’s look of bobbed hair, silk headband, nifty cardigans and her formless, sleeveless, regulation “white only” dresses that showed two inches of her stocking legs awakened the public to what fashionable tennis style could be. Designers who were later inspired by her look included Perry Ellis, whose 1984 spring collection stands in homage to her style.
Elizabeth Wilson, author of “Love Game: A History of Tennis From Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon,” said Lenglen was dressed by the couturier Jean Patou. “She was considered terribly daring because she turned up at Wimbledon after the war not wearing corsets in a short dress and without stockings. She was viewed as almost naked in a way, and extremely advanced. This is part of the fashion of the Twenties, when women’s bodies really were emancipated,” she said.
The fact that early on in the sport women and men played tennis together added a romantic dimension to it, Wilson said. In the Victorian era, women wore dresses with bustles and corsets and “all the rest of it to play — unbelievably,” she said.
The corsets would sometimes make women faint, King recalled. “But if a man had a corset on, he might have fainted, too, back in the 1800s,” she said. “That’s how two out of three versus three out of five came around. They always thought too much exercise would hurt our [women’s] reproductive system, and you always had to be polite. Over time, freedom of movement became appreciated. It became OK to show more and more of our bodies and that reflected women’s right to vote and other things we were able to gain as far as power.”
Even though the long-standing tennis uniform of polo shirt and tailored shorts for men, and tennis dresses and panties for women — more on those later — do not always make a fashion moment, the pieces themselves remain iconic and popular. Evidence of that can be seen in the oversize logo polo shirt and variation on the pleated skirt from Sacai’s resort 2021 collection, and the pastel tailored tennis dresses from Versace’s resort 2021, each an indication of inspiration from the sport. Revisiting the chic attitude of tennis fashion beyond being just activewear has gained popularity.
Other inspiring fashion trends include the visor, first worn by player Helen Willis in the Twenties; Chanel’s wide knickers for tennis in 1927; the tailored short for men in 1932; player Helen Hull Jacobs’ pleated knee-length shorts fashioned to look like a skirt in 1939, and the above-the-knee tennis dress introduced in 1937 by Jaeger. Key footwear looks included nonabsorbent Hygeen insole, men’s tennis shoes from Hood Rubber Co. in 1929 and an improved version in 1958. Happily, we have today’s technology in this area for pros like Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
By the Fifties, the tennis fashion horizon changed — as did much else in the world. Enter the couturier of tennis fashion, Ted Tinling. He introduced his lace-trimmed tennis panty in 1949 for player Gussie Moran, who shocked Wimbledon fans and left the staid British distinctly unamused. Many variations of the princess-line tennis dresses and panties combination are still being worn today. When the Virginia Slims Tour was created, Tinling was hired to dress players. Each year had a theme — black and pink one year and menthol green and blue another, according to King. Maureen Connolly wore Tinling’s designs when she became the first woman to win a Grand Slam — four major tournaments in 1953, losing only one set in those four tournaments. Tinling also created Connolly’s wedding dress in 1955.
Tinling’s quirky, colorful tennis dresses were a fixture on the professional tennis tour for more than 60 years, and his career also encompassed tennis-related sports fashion. Many of his dresses were worn by the Original Nine, on the Virginia Slim’s women’s tennis tour from 1971-1979. Famous for his quirky sense of style, Tinling once told WWD that he was inspired by couture lines and applications, Christian Dior’s “H line”and A-line silhouettes among them. Many would witness it on display the moment tennis legend King entered Houston’s Astrodome for the “Battle of the Sexes” televised game against male opponent Bobby Riggs in 1973.
“If you listen to the broadcast, [sports announcer] Howard Cosell only talked about my looks. He never once talked about my accomplishments. When Bobby Riggs came out, he talked about his accomplishments. I can’t stand it when women aren’t appreciated for their accomplishments,” King said. “We only had traditional media. We didn’t have phones and the technology that we have today, which has changed a lot of things.”
King wore a design by Tinling and changed the sport for women in a white tennis dress with turquoise-blue embroidery and beading in a monumental moment for the history of the sport. Her upset win was the tipping point for women’s tennis. “He was a real force in the sport. He just made so many beautiful dresses. I also got so much out of going to the guy to get fittings,” King said of Tinling. “He would talk about everything — the clothes, the fit, the function and how when you play, everyone expands. You have to add an extra inch and a half…with a lot of things in architecture or fashion, the question is, ‘Do they want to look aesthetically [pleasing] or be efficient and perform well?’”
Recalling how, as amateurs, female players did not get paid to wear clothes in the Sixties, King said, “After Ted, we started getting paid. That‘s when you see all these different outfits — sometimes not great looking. But we were getting paid. But we didn’t have as much say.“
Tinling and his team would produce more than 1,000 unique designs, many adapted for retailers and by home sewers in America. His work in tennis apparel created the need for what is now active sportswear and ath-leisure fashion, a sector of the apparel industry that began to grow exponentially by the late Sixties.
By the Seventies, major changes were being seen in tennis. Male and female players are finally able to compete as professionals, controlling the output of their image. While indoor courts would end the seasonality of the game, professional tour circuits and extensive primetime television offered more coverage in living color. The latter challenged the “white only” regulation dress rule for players and club members alike. To broaden the market for ath-leisure apparel, pastels and dark colors like blacks and browns helped boost the marketing and manufacturing of tennis as everyday wear. This push also offered players the rights to brand inclusion and birthed the new celebrity sports player. Stan Smith inked one of the first major sneaker deals with Adidas in 1973, while Bjorn Borg teamed with Fila, and Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King endorsed and collaborated with Head sportswear. The latter landed her first deal in 1970. Having sold more than 100 million pairs of his signature shoes with Adidas, Smith said, when asked, that he tells people, “Well, you probably could find a better shoe to play tennis in. But you can wear that shoe any time — on the court or off the court.”
Before too long other brands like Fred Perry, Ellesse, Nike, Puma and Sergio Tacchini joined in, as did fiber and textile developers like Kodel, a trademark of Eastman Chemical Company. DuPont Fibers and Spring Mills continue to collaborate with apparel companies.
As more people took up tennis, more clubs and parks began popping up from Palm Beach to Cincinnati. Hollywood and the fashion and entertainment industries would not be far behind, due partially to celebrity tennis tournaments. Recognizing the marketing potential, many Seventh Avenue designers, including Bill Blass, Oleg Cassini and Ralph Lauren, among others, created logo-inspired on- and off-the-court tennis fashions. By the mid-Seventies, tennis would become one of the most profitable sectors in the apparel and sportswear-related industries. And, while some innovations stand true for all sports-related industries, tennis has been the only sport to stay fashionable and timely into the 21st century by granting access to the lifestyle, the game and the players, leading to a dedicated spectatorship unavailable in any other sport, making “tennis for everyone.” Unlike golf and basketball, tennis offers a more versatile wardrobe post-play.
Consumers’ interest in tennis as well as other sports, physical activity and having the perfect body have heightened their interest in athletic styles and lowered demand for clothes that hide bodily imperfections, Wilson said. Joggers, running jackets and T-shirts really are part of fashion, the author added.