Wimbledon today is known for showcasing the tennis talents of both male and female competitors, but in the tournament’s earlier days, one does wonder how women were expected to make a decent serve dressed in full-length skirts, corsets, and fiddly blouses: the ‘tennis whites’ of the time. It took some real champions to make a name for women in tennis…
At the turn of the century, there really wasn’t much to differentiate a female tennis player from the average lady walking down the street to do her groceries. Corsets, petticoats and floor-length skirts were just part of the game. At the time, the officials at Wimbledon were mostly concerned with preserving the ‘modesty’ of these top athletes – something which might seem a little irrelevant to us today. The ladies on the court did look very prim and proper, but their outfits probably weren’t the best choice for pursuing that Grand Slam, or even returning a couple of balls. It isn’t hard to see why women were consistently outperformed by their male counterparts when they were weighed down by weighty skirts, shirts, belts – and don’t forget the statement hat.
Unperturbed by the dress code, meet the formidable British athlete Dorothea Douglass Lambert Chambers, who dominated Wimbledon in the early 20th century. Douglass made her first appearance at Wimbledon in 1900, looking sharp with a shirt and tie on the court. It’s hard to imagine playing tennis in that dress, but Dorothea was up to the challenge – she went on to win seven Wimbledon Women’s Single titles, and even won the gold medal at the 1908 Summer Olympics.
Douglass also pretty much wrote the rule book on female tennis fashion. In 1910, she wrote Lawn Tennis for Ladies, containing advice for female players including court etiquette, dress code, and the correct equipment needed to emulate Dorothea’s tennis prowess. A pretty impressive side-project for a tennis champion and Olympic gold-medalist.
After Douglass, French competitor Suzanne Lenglen made a name for herself as tennis’ favourite flapper and a prima donna in the 1920s. Her antics on the court kept the audience on their toes. Lenglen was known to swap her court-side drink for a swig of brandy, and always played with a full face of makeup, which she managed to keep intact despite being known to break down and cry during a bad game.
Her unpredictable matches included one serious bout of Whooping Cough that forced her to withdraw from play during a match in New York, a small blip in her otherwise 181-match winning streak.
Lenglen was famous for her eccentric dress sense. She kept to Wimbledon’s strict tennis-whites policy in a full-length mink or ermine coat, underneath which she revealed a controversially short skirt and form-fitting top.
American tennis champion Bill Tilden commented on Lenglen that, “her costume struck me as a cross between a prima donna’s and a streetwalker”. Despite attracting media attention through her ostentatious clothes and dramatic personality, Lenglen became known for her grace and talent on the court. She dominated women’s tennis in the Roaring ’20s, with a personality to match the period. She earned the respect of the tennis community and became a household name, opening up the game for future generations of women.
Tennis trends were challenged once again after WWII. In 1949, the tennis player Gertrude Moran caused a stir during her first appearance at Wimbledon, receiving the more memorable nickname ‘Gorgeous Gussie’. After winning the singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles categories at the US indoor championships, the Californian athlete, who preferred to be known as Gussy, shocked the crowd and officials at Wimbledon with her ‘revealing’ tennis whites.
Before the tournament, Moran had approached the official Wimbledon host Ted Tinling to design her outfit, originally asking for sleeves and a skirt in block colours. Because of Wimbledon’s rule that outfits had to be white only, Tinling instead agreed to design an alternative outfit. Tinling’s skirt seemed an appropriate length when Gussy walked onto the court, but as soon as play began, onlookers were shocked by Gussy’s frilly knickers on full display.
The All England Club’s committee chastised Moran for bringing “vulgarity and sin into tennis”. Even politicians at the time got their knickers in a twist, and questions over appropriate clothing were raised in Parliament. Tinling was cast out of the Wimbledon community for 33 years, despite his long career as an official Wimbledon host. However, due to the sensationalist nature of the story and Gussy’s attractive figure, she was an instant hit with the media and public.
In a 1988 interview, Gussy described the overwhelming press attention. “You know, I was really never anything to write home about. I was a plain girl. But Life magazine ran a picture calling me Gorgeous Gussie, and the British picked it up and did a real job with it.” It seems that Gorgeous Gussie really was something to write home about, as she went on to play tennis professionally throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
A shrewd businesswoman, Gussy capitalised on her nickname, scoring several jobs due to her newfound fame. These included sports newscasting, presenting Hollywood show Sundown, and even releasing her own line of tennis clothing. Building a career on some frilly knickers takes is a pretty impressive feat.
We’ve come a long way in the past 100 years of Wimbledon, and with a hot few weeks forecast for this year’s players, it’s probably for the best that we left some of those more conservative styles in the past. But if you do catch the Williams sisters sporting a large hat or tie on the court, you’ll know where they got their fashion inspiration from.
By Dido Gompertz