A Brief History of Tennis Fashion Controversies

2018 French Open - Day Seven
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When the French Open responded to Serena Williams’s black catsuit, which she called her “Wakanda-inspired” look, by banning the outfit from future tournaments (“One must respect the game and the place,” said the French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli), it set off a cascade of responses criticizing the change as an example of the sexualization of women, especially black women, while they’re simply trying to execute their job (not to mention the fact that Williams’s Nike-designed outfit was specifically designed to avoid post-pregnancy health issues). It was summarized pithily by the tennis legend Billie Jean King: “The policing of women’s bodies must end.” This was far from the first time a tennis look pushing the boundaries of fashion triggered censorship on the part of the notoriously conservative tennis establishment—nor was it even the first time one of Williams’s own looks was behind the change. Here, take a look back at a few of the most prominent controversies in tennis fashion history.

Serena Williams at the French Open, 2018

Though the response to the catsuit ban (even saying it out loud, it sounds outrageous) on social media was critical and political, Williams herself took it in stride: “When it comes to fashion, you don’t want to be a repeat offender,” she said in a press conference.

Gertrude Moran at Wimbledon, 1949

The hemlines of tennis whites have crept up since the 1940s, but at the time, Gertrude Moran’s hint of lace underwear scandalized the tennis world. Ahead of the 1949 Wimbledon tournament—Moran’s first—she had requested permission to wear a colorful look, breaking with the tennis club’s tradition of all-white ensembles. When she was denied her request, she decided instead for a more subversive statement: a lace trim along her underwear, which briefly flashed during play. The All England Tennis club reportedly accused her of bringing “vulgarity and sin into tennis”—and the controversy even had a day in Parliament. To top it off, Moran lost her match.

Anne White at Wimbledon, 1985

Ah, the original catsuit. Anne White’s catsuit, which she wore to the championships at Wimbledon in 1985, was designed by Ted Tinling, the same designer responsible for Gertrude “Gussie” Moran’s lace-trimmed underwear. After losing her match to White, Pam Shriver complained to Wimbledon officials about her opponent’s look, and it was banned (even though it adhered to the club’s all-white policy).

Serena Williams at Wimbledon, 2010

After Serena Williams (and others, including men) dared to include a pop of color under her Wimbledon whites, the administration cracked down, forbidding colorful undergarments in 2014. Here, one of the offenders: Williams with hot pink underwear, coordinating with the bright pink piping on her dress.

Serena Williams at Wimbledon, 2012

Two years later, Serena Williams won Wimbledon again, this time matching deep fuchsia undergarments and a headband with the colored piping on her dress. Two years after that, such thoughtful details would be forbidden—because, after all, the (probably old) men who run the tennis establishment don’t want to consider women’s undergarments.

Ana Ivanovic at the French Open, 2016

As Shriver illustrates, sometimes tennis looks face criticism from outside rather than inside the administration. Here, a camouflage Adidas look worn by many of the brand’s contracted athletes was designed to “minimize distractions”—for the players wearing the outfits, rather than their opponents.

Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon, 2016

Similarly, Nike’s uniform for the 2016 Wimbledon tournament was not a favorite among players—too short, too loose—except for a select few, like Eugenie Bouchard, who described it as “nice and short so you can move around and be free with your movements.” Notably, Serena Williams, a Nike athlete, did not wear the dress—because the brand designs her custom looks.

Venus Williams at Wimbledon, 2017

Even a hint of color can send the Wimbledon gods into a frenzy—especially when that hint of color even remotely hints at the needs of women’s bodies. In 2017, Venus Williams wore a pink bra under a Wimbledon-approved all-white look. But after a mid-match rain delay, she came back onto the court without a spot of pink in sight. She declined to address the change during a post-match press conference: “I don’t like talking about bras in press conferences,” she said. “It’s weird.”