Wimbledon: Costumes from the tennis court


Wimbledon: Costumes from the tennis court

You may be a fashion duffer or an athleisure pro, a failed fashionista or a sucker for catwalk trends, a Roger Federer faithful or a Rafael Nadal addict. You may lust after Serena Williams’ Greatness Collection, swear by Martina Navratilova’s blonde hair, or curse the slinky red dress that Maria Sharapova wore to the Met Gala red carpet last month. But there is no escaping the audacious kinship that fashion and tennis share. Fashion designers and tennis coaches, celebrities and tennis players, merchandisers and fitness counsellers—otherwise polarized by profession and opinion—find a pulsating connect somewhere, somehow, because of the baffling ways in which fashion and tennis intersect.


One a sport, the other an anthropological agent provocateur, tennis and fashion have chased each other for decades. They hook up in ways that mirror and map our times. Body shaming, body image, race, rage, resilience, fandom, fame, fantasy or fitness, there is a fashion reference for all of these.

Now see the flip side: lace-trimmed underpants, braids or beaded hair, a long and stimulating array of white garments, fluorescent skirts, androgynous skorts, green-blue hair, sports stars in couture gowns on the red carpet and fashion magazine covers. Athleisure is the No.1 reigning global trend. And there is a tennis reference for all of these.

Consider these. Serena’s animal-print neon tennis garments, Nadal’s bright, non-masculine tees and his rebellion against strict dress codes on court, Sharapova’s hairstyles (there are more than 35 Sharapova hairstyles on the Internet), Federer’s immensely popular merchandise for Nike, available on Rogerfederershop.com (incidentally, its proceeds go to the Roger Federer Foundation, philanthropy and fashion being contemporary companions too), the never-ending tales of Andre Agassi’s long and famous hair, Navratilova’s androgynous tennis style from the late 1970s, Venus Williams’ lace dress on court, Katharine Hepburn’s high-waisted shorts (she was the first to reject skirts as a tennis player in 1940), tennis legend Chris Evert’s collaboration with Tail Activewear for the tennis apparel line called Chrissie by Tail. These are just some of the stories from the tennis side.

Andre Agassi, the long-haired champion, at the US Open in 1990. Photo: Gary Hershorn/Reuters

They are matched by those from the fashion side: Yohji Yamamoto athletic shoes, adidas by Stella McCartney, Dior’s tennis-striped canvas backpack, briefcase and pouch, Louis Vuitton’s duffle tennis bag and retro sunglasses, Tom Ford sneakers with suede and calfskin leather, a tennis-inspired Björn Borg dress with racket references by Australian designer Catherine Conlan and Chloé’s half-zip tracksuit top…the list goes on and on.

Even as a classic white wrap-around tennis skirt by Gucci with gold logo in front and blue and red webbing is back on top summer buys this year, Lacoste’s Fall/Winter 2015 show last year took inspiration from Richie Tenenbaum, the fictional tennis prodigy from the movie The Royal Tenenbaums.

“Wimbledon whites” is in itself a mean chapter in this long winding narrative.


But clothes are only the skin of the skein that tennis stars are helping unravel. They now give voice to the most urgent concerns in the world of fashion and glamour. Just last month, Serena was seen with Beyoncé in the video Sorry, from her album Lemonade, which is about race and feminism—prickly and timely issues. Last August, Serena, who is really our Lady of Tennis with a gift of the gab, grit and garb, and has twice been on the cover of Vogue, shot for the cover of the New York magazine in a figure-hugging, long, sleeved, black maxi dress designed by Elizabeth and James. She had been trolled earlier for her “man-like” body, and this was her way of delivering a Grand Slam to quieten the body shamers. Photos in the magazine showed her in a bodysuit with a cut-out panel across her stomach; she was balancing on parallel bars. “We brought fashion back to tennis,” Serena told the magazine, referring to her sister Venus, no small fashionista herself. “It was great when Chris Evert was around. Tracy Austin had some great designs. But the 1990s was not a good time,” Serena said.

The 1990s may not have been as evocative for the tennis-fashion matrix, but that was also because the sport was not as inclusive as it is today. Glamorous tennis stars make better social media heroes and Instagram figures off court. On court, of course, tennis has always been considered the most elegant game—with its balletic suppleness—giving clothes just the kind of poetic movement they need to become memorable. The fascination with “following” someone is primarily a visual sport after all. Stars influence what tennis legends wear, and vice versa. Last year, when Hollywood actor Sienna Miller turned up at Wimbledon for the men’s semi-final wearing a white Galvan jumpsuit, looking stunning, everything from “Wimbledon”, “Galvan jumpsuit” and “Sienna Miller” got huge hits on social media.


Such celebrity endorsements of the tennis-fashion congruence surge during Wimbledon—it is like turning up in an Armani gown for an Armani show; fashion is, after all, like a membership card—what you wear announces allegiance.

How tennis is written and spoken about by writers and opinion-makers outside the sport also matters a lot. The late David Foster Wallace wrote in his famous 2006 essay in The New York Times that watching Federer play was akin to a religious experience—he didn’t just offer extraordinary words for extraordinary talent, but inadvertently fuelled the craze people had for Federer and, thus, his merchandise or fashion. Federer was not even a “fashion icon” then.

Ditto for the peach gown Serena wore to the Wimbledon Champions’ Dinner last year in London, proudly showing off her muscles. The wholehearted support by author J.K. Rowling, among many others, in the face of her body shamers made Serena’s gown a “fashion moment”. It is no small coincidence that Anna Wintour, the world’s most influential fashion editor, is a big tennis fan.


The Williams sisters don’t do sublime fashion, but Serena is right. They have brought to tennis the most provocative fashion updates of the last decade: colourful hair beads and hair accessories, hot pink bodysuits, funky underpants, bomber jackets, metallics, glitter, hot pants, pleats.

The most clinching influence on the tennis-fashion zeitgeist, though, is the global emphasis on a fit and toned body and the popularity of athleisure dressing. To a large extent, these define contemporary popular culture—one as a value, the other its “look”, giving aspiration a language. That aspiration finds form, fame and fascination on the tennis court like nowhere else—not in movies, not in theatre, not in political campaigns. On the tennis court, though, the body—glistening, fit, strong and purposeful, earning big money and big laurels and dressed in short, sexy clothes—looks at its best, male or female. Clothed in vests, shorts, little skirts, and racerback tees, tennis stars hand us a vicarious life script. Great for fantasy, but possible to don too.

It is a befitting footnote then that after 12 years, Ralph Lauren has updated the uniforms of the court officials, chair and line umpires, and line boys and girls at Wimbledon this year.