Australian tennis players in 1937. Photographed by Sam Hood
It’s that time of year again, when it’s all about drinking champagne, eating strawberries and cream, and donning white like a Wimbledon champ. Tennis, that quintessentially British sport, has been played in one form or another since the 12th century, when the ball was simply hit with the bare palm of the hand. It took four-hundred years for someone to come up with the genius idea of using a racket, and we haven’t looked back since. Enthusiastically pursued by royalty, courtiers and ‘commoners’ alike, the Medieval form of tennis eventually evolved in the mid-nineteenth century into an outdoor game, played initially on a croquet lawn in the upmarket Edgbaston area of Birmingham. The two founders of the modern version, Major Harry Gem and his Spanish merchant pal Augurio Perera, then moved to Leamington Spa in 1874 where along with two local doctors they formed the Leamington Tennis Club, the very first of its kind in the world.
Fred Perry tennis dresses in the 1960s
The popularity of this summer sport has increased exponentially since then, spurred on in the past hundred years by the creation of an international professional tennis circuit, the advent of television and the commercial possibilities of sponsorship. As the game evolves – employing ever more technologically advanced equipment, and consequently affecting the way that tennis is played – so too do the fashions on the court. In this month’s guest blog post, we’re taking a look at how women’s tennis outfits have changed over the years. White has been the mainstay of tennis fashion since the late nineteenth century and became compulsory wear at Wimbledon as long ago as 1890. Not only does it reflect light, absorbing little heat and allowing the wearer to stay cool, but it’s also a colour that dirties very easily, and so wearing it was a luxury that only the very rich could afford. The above image shows Maud Watdon (left), the very first woman to win the Ladies’ Championship at Wimbledon. She beat her sister Lilian (right) to the title in 1884. It would be 118 years before two siblings would play against each other in the Wimbledon Finals at Centre Court again – Serena Williams defeated her sister Venus in 2002! Up until the 1920s there wasn’t really such a thing as sportswear. Ladies were expected to cover up, however warm it got, and often donned hats, corsets and petticoats. This player is forced to pick her skirt up from the ground as she plays in 1906. Although thankfully at least the sleeves have started creeping up, a trend started by America Wimbledon women’s single’s champion May Sutton Bundy, who bravely revealed her wrists in 1905 kick-starting a trend that would be impossible to reverse. Suzanne Lenglen, seen here in 1924 caused quite a stir playing tennis with her arms and calves exposed, but in doing so freed future players “from the tyranny of corsets” as Wimbledon veteran Elizabeth Ryan would later proclaim. Never one to follow trends, Katharine Hepburn eschewed the shorter tennis skirts that had become ubiquitous by the 1940s in favour of practical high-waisted shorts, which were more in keeping with her masculine style. Of course the rest of the world took notice, and quickly followed suit. The mini skirt trend of the 1960s permeated all aspect of British culture, making its way onto the Wimbledon courts by the middle of the decade. Italian player Lea Pericoli is seen wearing a rose-trimmed Teddy Tinling creation in 1965. After 100 years of wearing all white clobber, the tennis world rebelled in a fit of Eighties excess; along with sporting the odd mullet, players brightened up their gear with colourful details. After all, the 1963 dress code at Wimbledon stated that competitors must dress “predominantly in white,” updated in 1995 to “almost entirely white.” Since the 1908s players have chosen to express themselves through little flashes of colour appearing in their hairbands, shorts or soles of their feet. This year however, Andrew Jarrett, tournament referee at Wimbledon, has announced a new all-white rule, which allows just a 1cm trim of colour on every outfit, and thus has signalled a brand new era of tennis fashion. We will watch the evolution with interest! For more on fashion and design history, and vintage inspiration pick up a copy of V&OAK Magazine for just £4.95 over in our shop. See you next week!
Anastasia Grabova – Editor and Founder of V&OAK