Looking back on the woman and outfits that have graced the lawn courts at SW1.
When ladies first appeared on court at SW1 in 1884, it was an era of corsetry and Victorian bustles. Exposing the tip of one’s booted toe beneath one’s heavy skirts was as racy as it got.
From a contemporary perspective it’s completely impossible to imagine playing tennis in such an outfit, akin to sewing in boxing gloves, or cycling in bondage trousers. Imagine tearing to the net to return a cheeky drop shot, fearing the loss of your boater – yes, they wore boaters – and the subsequent shattering of decorum? Never mind the constriction of your corset. No wonder women took to throwing themselves under horses.
Surprisingly, the reason players wore white was not because it looked so fetching against the perfect lawn of the court but because white is less likely to show perspiration. A remarkable concession to the reality of being a woman, given that this was a time in which female sweat was unforgivably taboo and it was acceptable for women simply to glow. And believe me racing around the court in an outfit like this there would be plenty of glowing.
Vive la France! Vive Suzanne Lenglen!
In 1926, French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen roared onto the courts at SW1 without her corset. She put sporting performance above convention, daring to wear a fashionable drop waist dress that ended mid calf, made of light cotton that allowed her to move freely about the court.
It was hard to know whether to be scandalized by her dress, her talent – she walloped seven-time British winner Dorothea Douglass Chambers – or, her behaviour – apparently, she swigged great gulps of brandy between sets. There was so much to be appalled by but inevitably she was adored and took to arriving on court wearing a fur stole, her trademark ‘Lenglen bandeau’ and deep red lipstick.
Shortly after this act of defiance corsets disappeared in a moment of sporting liberation hailed by fellow player, Elizabeth Ryan, herself the winner of 19 Wimbledon titles, “”All women players should go on their knees in thankfulness to Suzanne for delivering them from the tyranny of corsets.”
With corsets long gone and sporting hemlines now of length suitable for striding across court to slam balls past your opponent in a most un-feminine way there was seemingly no longer a need for sartorial rebellion on sporting grounds. But since when did that ever stop anyone from pushing the dress code envelope? It certainly didn’t stop Gertrude Moran.
In 1949, intent on causing a stir ‘Gorgeous Gussie,’ attempted to wear colour on court at Wimbledon. Her response to official refusal was to flounce across town to the studio of former tennis player, turned fashion designer, Teddy Tinling; who created an outfit for her that sent post-war pulses racing, drove the All England Club committee to accuse her of bringing ‘vulgarity and sin’ into tennis and caused questions to be raised in parliament.
Today looking back at this creation and the frilly knickers that so titillated and outraged, we feel just a tad nostalgic for the old days. If only this level of innocence had been maintained in our menfolk. If only a sneaky peek at our Spanx – as essentially that’s what the controversial undergarments were – was still considered sexy. If only.
What a time this was for women’s tennis. Billie Jean King and Chris Evert were slugging it out and they made headlines for their talent, and rivalry not their outfits – well, maybe Chris did, but not in a tasteless publicity grabbing sort of a way.
There was intense debate about liberation off court but within the confines of sport women were just getting on with it. Tennis outfits had become shorter, more fitted and a barrage of frilly knickered bottoms was no longer considered a disgrace – instead it was the norm. Sufficient plumage of ruffled fabric adorning a woman’s rear was considered a modesty enhancing device that detracted from the natural curve of a woman’s buttocks – a sight still too racy for the All England Club.
This was the era in which Billie Jean King played self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig, Bobby Riggs in a match designed to underscore Riggs point that women were inferior athletes, inferior in pretty much every way. Of course she whalloped him in straight sets in and this weekend BJK was in Edinburgh for the premier of the film ‘Battle of the Sexes’ a documentary about her legendary victory – still grabbing headlines for her tennis age 69.
There aren’t too many taboos that remain on court though the All England Club remain resolute on their all-white rules. This stricture has been pushed about as far as it can go, notably by Serena Williams who flushed the rulebook with her raspberry shorts and matching headband in last year’s final.
Morally we’re fairly resilient but we’re still capable of outrage though this is generally in response to the lengths players go to in order to attract attention and create a little off-court splash that might result in celebrity status and lucrative media deals – see Bethanie Mattek-Sands above.
But there is one new ladies phenomenon that stirs the controversy pot and that’s the grunting. Maybe it’s just us but despite a love of Wimbledon we’re increasingly inclined to switch off the women’s matches to avoid the aural assault. Is it just us, or is it intolerable?
Get them to stop! Join us to vent your grunting fury on twitter @ #campaignagainstgrunting
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