In the first women’s tennis matches at Wimbledon in 1884, players wore high-necked dresses with full ankle-length skirts and corsets. And hats. This look would probably not meet today’s standards for the same tournament, which state that “competitors must be dressed in suitable tennis attire”. (That’s on the assumption that most of us would not consider a corset and full Jane Austen get-up particularly suited to any kind of physical exertion.)
Also not appropriate tennis wear is apparently Serena Williams’ black lycra catsuit, which made her feel “like a warrior princess kind of queen from Wakanda” when she made her return to Grand Slam competition at the French Open.
Although it might seem a good idea to let the greatest athlete in the world compete in whatever she thinks best, French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, has pledged that Roland Garros will introduce a dress code for players, reasoning the following: “I believe we have sometimes gone too far. Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.”
Understandably, Giudicelli has standards to maintain; global fashion search platform Lyst recently pronounced tennis as the most stylish sport of 2018, presumably solely based on how much people love Roger Federer’s posh blazer. And, after all, this is the sport whose enduring image is Tennis Girl, the Athena calendar poster, which famously suggested underwear was not an essential piece of kit.
But Guidicelli's condemnation of the catsuit was a bit… vague. Especially when the suit was designed specifically to improve circulation and help prevent blood clots, which Williams has a history of suffering from and which almost killed her during during the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia, in September 2017.
The truth is that there is nothing offensive about Williams’ choice of outfit apart from the fact that she is the one wearing it. Ostensibly, the French Tennis Federation are introducing a dress code to regulate what players wear on court, but in actuality they are telling Serena Williams what she cannot. If the body in the catsuit was more acceptable to Giudicelli, perhaps so too the suit itself would be. This boils down to a man thinking it’s appropriate to tell a grown woman what she can and cannot wear, while disregarding her health concerns in the process.
The double-standard is clear: discussions around what men wear to play sport revolve around new technology, potential advantages and fair play. When it comes to women, it’s about suitability, acceptability and appeasement. As Billie Jean King tweeted, “the policing of women’s bodies must end”.
In 2016, model Rain Dove posed in both the typical men’s and women’s uniforms for sports including tennis, gymnastics and athletics. They concluded that the women’s options were generally tighter and revealed more skin, making them better in terms of movement and comfort, but making them (an actual model) feel self-conscious. Socially, we are just not conditioned to appreciate women’s athleticism, only their sexuality.
Until 2012, those infamous women’s beach-volleyball swimsuits were the only choice for competitors. In the same year, the Badminton World Federation was forced to backtrack after trying to enforce a ruling that female players wear skirts or dresses "to ensure attractive presentation". And, in 2011, the International Boxing Association tried to introduce a mandate that its female boxers compete in skirts.
The artistic interpretation argument doesn’t come into play with tennis, as it might with figure skating or gymnastics. It’s about power, technique and athleticism, no matter what someone is wearing. And head-to-toe lycra is a lot closer to what most women would choose to wear to play sport than a mini-dress.
Discussions around what men wear to play sport revolve around new technology, potential advantages and fair play. When it comes to women, it’s about suitability, acceptability and appeasement
But in a sport where women are paid less than men, the female players rely on sponsorship deals. Therefore, they must appear attractive to potential sponsors, which invariably means conforming to societal beauty norms. The majority of Williams’ on-court looks are no more revealing than her fellow competitors; the problem arises because what she is revealing is not long, taut, white limbs but robust, muscular, black ones.
In the 2002 US Open (which she won), Williams wore another catsuit – a sleeveless one-piece with shorts – which became a media obsession as commentators discovered that talking about Williams’ outfits was a convenient opportunity to talk about – and fetishize – her body.
Both Williams sisters have spent their entire careers being critiqued in ways that have not been applied to their white peers. Would Giudicelli have singled out a white woman wearing the catsuit? An educated guess would suggest probably not.
Williams has gamely responded that "when it comes to fashion you don't want to be a repeat offender”, and played her first-round match at the US Open in a custom Virgil Abloh-designed tutu, complete with leather jacket to enter the court.
But the physique of Serena Williams has been scrutinized, dissected, ridiculed and insulted more than any other sports professional, and that an outfit that emphasises that physique has been judged as “too far” is a cowardly way of saying that her black, female body does not fit in with how Giudicelli would like to see tennis played. Presumably, that poster of the knickerless woman scratching her bum is more up his street.