From Wimbledon's white to the question of tennis apparel through history

Jun 25, 2014, 4:30:21 PM

Wimbledon is about to begin and like every year, a white dress code is required. But what is it about? Let's see what are the actual rules of the ATP and WTA in terms of dress code on a tennis court.

Wimbledon is about to begin, and like every year, it's the same ritual: White dress code required for men and ladies alike! Really? But what is it about? Let's see what are the actual rules of the ATP and WTA in terms of dress code on a tennis court.


A historical perspective is required in the preamble, in order to understand how tennis, a sport known as conservative, has nevertheless managed to adapt to the evolution of society and fashion over the years. When the first competitions were created in the late 19th century, decorum still required for men to wear a suit and tie and for women an awkward dress with a corset and long sleeves. Elegance was then taking precedence over performance, much to the chagrin of some players, frustrated at not being able to move as well as they could on the courts. Some nonetheless dared to defy the dress code imposed by the fashion ayatollahs raging at the time, as the American May Sutton, who shocked the uptight assistance of Wimbledon in 1905 by winning the tournament with a skirt revealing her ankles and a very masculine shirt, that she said to have borrowed from her father. Shocking! The development of fashion in France during the Roaring Twenties contributed to the development of new outfits more suited to the practice of sport, especially amongst women. Designers such as Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel shortened skirts and started to use lighter fabrics, that Suzanne Lenglen in particular had the opportunity to experience. Amongst men, it took until 1933 before the first major clothing revolution. That year, at the tournament of Forest Hills (the future U.S. Open), the English Bunny Austin arrived on the court wearing... shorts. The regulation was then studied closely, and it was seen that nothing prohibited to shorten trousers above the knee. It will be emulated.


Ann White, Wes Anderson and Andre Agassi…


After World War II, society continued to evolve, willy-nilly. In 1949 at Wimbledon, the American Gussy Moran shocked everyone by wearing an outfit specifically designed for the occasion: a skirt with a built-in flannel short. The boldness caused controversy, but was short lived. Quickly, skirts became widespread, allowing an ever-greater freedom of movement. The last great revolution dates back to the 70s. It was at the U.S. Open that it was first asked from players to swap the obligatory white outfits for a bit of colour, in order to better distinguish opponents during games broadcasted on black and white TVs. The commercialization of colour televisions and the development of tennis as an entertainment further contributed to "colourize" the players. The striped polo and bandana style - the Wes Anderson seventies fashion - gave way, the next decade, to more exuberance: the spandex dress of Ann White at Wimbledon in 1985, the jewellery promoted by Chris Evert onto the courts in 1987, the fluorescent polo shirts and jean shorts of Andre Agassi at the beginning of his career, the garish outfits of the Williams sisters and Bethanie Mattek-Sands... Nowadays, the trend is to highlight the shapes of the players as much as possible: long legs, muscular arms...


Shorts forbidden for girls


But what does the regulation say exactly? In the 323 pages that govern ATP tournaments, four are specifically devoted to the issue of dress code. It is explicitly stated that "players must wear a clean and appropriate outfit, subject to penalties," before going into details about what exactly is an appropriate outfit: shirt, t-shirt or polo, shorts, socks, shoes (which differ depending on surface), hat or bandana, sweatbands. No sponsoring is allowed, except for the logo of the equipment manufacturer. Only sleeves can be used for marketing reasons, such as Novak Djokovic’s for a car manufacturer at Roland Garros. In the regulation of the WTA (518 pages!) it is even more explicit: "A player will not be allowed to play matches if wearing a sweater, trousers, tee-shirt, jeans and shorts". Then: "A player may be asked to change clothes if the umpire considers it necessary." With this list of cons-indications, it is therefore understood that ladies are expected to wear a dress. "The combination of a skirt and a shirt could be considered as a dress," is indicated. According to these regulations, the integral combinations used by Ann White in 1985 and more recently by Serena Williams therefore appear to be illegal...


At Wimbledon, «almost» everything has to be white, soles included!


As for Wimbledon, the specific regulation says: "The players’ clothing, including shoes, for all competitions, as well as trainings on the courts of the tournament must be almost entirely white." This is this "almost" that some players use to try some fantasies. In other words, if the outfit has to be white in its majority, it means that there may be a bit of colour here and there. But beware; umpires can be particularly severe on the dress code of this particular tournament. In 2007, experts had different opinions regarding the outfit of the French Tatiana Golovin, as to whether she should be allowed to play with a red shorty under her white dress or not. After many negotiations, it was finally accepted on the court. And last year, Roger Federer himself created controversy by playing with white shoes and... orange soles! Proof that the battle against the conservative image of tennis isn’t over yet.


By Régis Delanoë