Inside the Collection

Fashions on the Court

Black and white image of women's tennis match in progress
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

Nowadays, watching tennis is as much of a sport as playing it! While there is the game itself, the on court fashion is equally a crowd pleaser. During the Hopman Cup in Perth earlier this year, tennis legend Margaret Court observed that players’ outfits make them “look like they should be on the beach”. She argued that today’s fashion has gone overboard – it is clingy, shows everything and puts the spectators focus on the player’s body rather than on their game. While some may argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does highlight the drastic shift in attitudes towards tennis and tennis fashions.

In the last 135 years since women first started playing tennis, we have gone from head to toe coverings to barely there, and both extremes can be seen in the Museum’s collection.

19th century women's tennis costume
Collection, Powerhouse Museum

This late 19th century example from England comprises a long sleeved tunic jacket and ankle length skirt made from tussore silk. It is more like a fanciful costume than sporting attire and would have been worn with black stockings, laced shoes with a heel, hat and gloves. Fitted on the skirt of this particular example are a number of hooks and eyelets which allowed the wearer to fold up the bottom of the skirt while playing. Some other dresses from this time were even fitted with pockets or an apron for holding the balls, in readiness for serving, or the racquet while socialising off the court. Tennis dresses for women at this time were an indication of a ladies charm and elegance, a far cry from what they stand for today!

Our 21st century example is not really a dress, as such, but a ‘catsuit’! It was designed and made by Puma in 2002 and a similar one to this was worn by Serena Williams at the US Open in the same year (she beat her own sister in it to win the final!). It is a sleeveless one-piece suit with built in shorts, made of black polyester and a zip front. In other words, there isn’t much material and it’s worn like a second skin. It’s not elegant, but nor was it ever designed to be this way. Instead, it speaks business, strength and confidence and, for Serena Williams, an outfit like this can look very threatening to the opposition, showing off her muscular frame, which is in itself, an excellent strategy for gaining the psychological upper hand in a match.

Designed by Puma. Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Whether or not the ‘catsuit’ is a tennis fashion faux-pas, however, I am undecided. I think I’ve seen a lot worse on the tennis court – white socks with black sneakers, all over hair beads, the back-to-front cap, black leather knee high boots, one long sleeve and one short sleeve and wearing the same colour top or dress as the surface you’re playing on!

What do you think? Fashion faux-pas or fashion revolution? And, do you think we’ll ever see a revival of the ankle length skirt again!?

In case you’re baffled about which tennis player goes with each fashion faux-pas, here are the answers (L-R): Andre Agassi/Pete Sampras/Lleyton Hewitt, Venus Williams, Lleyton Hewitt, Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Rafael Nadal.

2 responses to “Fashions on the Court

  • Hmmmm … how about fashion statement?? Tennis players these days seem to be moulded to fit a certain player type. Everyone plays the same, everyone behaves the same (mostly!), and a lot of them even look the same. Maybe the way a player dresses is a way for them to express themselves and stand out from the others.

  • Amanda – thanks for your comment. I agree with fashion statement – especially since Serena designs her own clothes, as does her sister. But, neither of them exactly have a ‘typical’ game when it comes to the women’s circuit. As they have said themselves, they would like to compete against the men! But, I guess fashion is their one avenue for complete self-expression (perhaps with the exception of Wimbeldon and the strict all white code) – but when does wearing too little become too much? I think the issue is more pertinent when the player doesn’t perform (Anna Kournikova used to receive a lot of flak for this) – and when they use fashion as a way of detracting spectators from their poor game!

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