Elegance and aesthetic are notions that we readily associate with tennis. The player’s harmonious gestures were used in fashion by designers, then by photographers, as a medium for the presentation of female clothing or accessories.
At the turn of the century, tennis was practiced in outfits that often doubled as city clothes. Women wore a corset and a hat. But slowly, tennis clothes gained their own autonomy. In 1885, a white outfit was adopted thanks to the initiative of the Watson sisters. The jacket or club coat, donned by the players before and after matches, was the equivalent of today’s athletic outerwear.
The twenties, a big era for women’s tennis thanks to Suzanne Lenglen, saw the skirt get shortened from the ankle to the calf, the sweatband replace the hat, and canvas shoes with a rubber heel the traditional boots. Within this secularity movement of sports clothing, one of the characteristics of fashion of the 20s, it is worth noting great couturier Jean Patou’s original approach. Without ever sacrificing athletic inspiration for the socialite elegance of the era, he endeavored to develop a line of real competitive clothing as a sort of return to the original canonization of sport’s clothing that, with Patou, fully recover their original purpose, their very essence. Suzanne Lenglen, who he dressed up both on and off the courts, would be the first champion to wear competitive clothing conceived by a famous designer. Who doesn’t remember, even today, her sensational arrival on the courts of Wimbledon in 1921? A pleated skirt in white silk that stopped at the knee, giving small hints of white stockings with each movement, a sleeveless sweater, and an orange headband in her hair. Suzanne Lenglen, a veritable archetype of the “Patou woman”, also symbolized the new woman of the 20s. This veritable empathy with the sport, that was his primary source of inspiration, permeated all of Patou’s creative activity. In line with the times, he stayed with the “secularization of sport’s clothing” movement by creating an entire line of dresses, jackets, and skirts, modest but infinitely elegant, meant for women that wanted to bring an athletic vibe into fashion even though their only exercise consisted of walking to the Ritz and getting in and out of their Hispano-Suizas. Patou worked with this frivolous mix while never losing sight of the imperatives of the functional rigor and comfort unique to sports clothing. His silk pleated skirts, famous supple jersey sweaters adorned with his JP monogram and V-neck sweaters, his pastel twin-set, his striped canvas blazer directly borrowed from cricket players, all made Patou’s style. A style that is still very present even today, like in pictures of Hermès’ Spring/Summer 2010 runway, where you can see knit sweaters and jersey skirts…
Ever since, skirts haven’t ceased to get shorter, even equipped with built-in underwear when decency requires. Wearing a short skirt wasn’t yet mandatory for female tennis players, who were able to wear shorts and a tank top, but sponsors pressed the players to show off their femininity. The goal was to attract a more and more numerous (male) audience and to make the contracts as profitable as possible by keeping the players looking sexy.
At the end of the 90s, the arrival of new fabrics like polyester allowed to better deal with sweat, making the clothes even more comfortable. Also worth noting is that before the arrival of big tennis suppliers, rules were put in place concerning authorized logo sizes on shorts, polos, skirts, dresses…And so, the female tennis player’s outfit has evolved throughout time to better adapt to their efforts on the court. At the same time it has influenced everyday fashion with its elegant, refined, comfortable, and casual aspects – that the outfits for other sports lack. Who doesn’t know the famous “Lacoste” shirts (named after the great champion from the 30s), or doesn’t use the term “tennis shoe” to designate any type of sports shoe? And let’s not forget the beauty products (perfumes…) and accessories (jewelry…) that are either more or less directly inspired by tennis or at least make reference to it, and that play a part in a certain lifestyle.