But Does It Fit on the Court?


There has not, perhaps, been such a fashion flap in tennis since “Gorgeous Gussie” Moran appeared at Wimbledon 53 years ago sporting lace panties under her white tennis dress.

Tongues were wagging Monday as Serena Williams took to the court for her first-round match of the U.S. Open wearing a leave-little-to-the-imagination black Lycra number that resembled a mini-wetsuit, explaining that “it makes me run faster and it’s really sexy.”

Author Karen Grigsby Bates was among those who thought she’d gone too far. “She’s a great athlete. She has a great body. But this is disco wear on the tennis court. I don’t know what the U.S. Open was thinking” to permit someone to play in such an outfit.


She adds, “Just because it’s permissible doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. Serena is sending two completely opposite messages, with the tiara and the pearl bracelet, on one hand, and this rather astonishing display of her physical assets on the other.

“I’m not one of those people who think that women only have to play tennis in dresses with little ruffled panties to match ... but this is over the edge.”

While rising to the top of the rankings, 20-year-old Serena and older sister Venus have never been fashion conformists. First, it was the hair beads--since discarded--that fell off during matches, clattering around the courts and annoying their opponents.

Serena has designed a line of clothing for Puma and has dyed her hair blond in an effort, she explained, to keep from being recognized.

Now, she’s brought urban in-your-face fashion to a sport that traditionally belonged not to two African American women reared in Compton, but to the elite country-club set.

Is there some sort of deep sociological significance in this?

“I think they’ve gotten to the point where they have no more worlds to conquer, so there’s a bit more of that in-your-face,” says psychologist Joyce Brothers.


Brothers points to studies showing that women who wear very revealing clothing “have less self-esteem than those who don’t show off. [Serena and Venus] are both really sturdy women, not the kind of women that men would fantasize about taking to bed. They would fantasize maybe about beating them on the tennis courts.”

She adds, “I think what they’re trying to do now is to shock people into realizing that you can be built for athletics and still be sexy. I think that they’re reassuring themselves as well, sort of thumbing their noses at the crowd, saying, ‘Look, I may be at the top of my game, but I’m a woman as well.’ ”

From a fashion perspective, the cat suit was a hit. “Her fashion sense and her total brilliance on the tennis court is emerging into something very unique,” says Andre Leon Talley, editor-at-large at Vogue. “I loved the cat suit. I love her hair. It’s all part of her being a champion. She’ll become a role model for young girls, aspiring for fashion.”

Like it or not, all that matters is that “she was dressed and she was able to perform,” says Helen Grieco, executive director of California National Organization for Women, pointing out that NOW worked very hard to see that, through Title IX, female athletes had the opportunity to succeed.

Is there a hint of racism in the response to fashion, Serena-style? “There might be,” says Grieco, as well as sexism. She points out that John McEnroe could stamp around the court, swearing at umpires, and people tended to dismiss his errant behavior as a “boys will be boys” thing.

As for fashion rebels, when Andre Agassi burst on the tennis scene in the late ‘80s, unshaven, with pierced ears and long hair, wearing neon-colored clothing and denim--in an era when crisp white shorts were all but mandatory--fans couldn’t get enough of him (especially the female fans).


But when the Williams sisters brought their power game to tennis, quickly rising to the top of the ranks, some other female players--notably former No. 1 Martina Hingis--didn’t hesitate to suggest that they were landing multimillion-dollar clothing endorsements because they were African American.

Certainly their flashy styles didn’t hurt. But on the court, tennis is Serena’s job, Bates points out, “and she doesn’t want to dress in a way that detracts from her work. Certainly if she worked at a bank or a law office or a brokerage firm, if her skirt was too short or her blouse too low, they would tell her to change her clothes.”

Her advice to Serena: “I want people to think of you as dazzling, attractive and fine and graceful, but they are getting distracted by what you wear.”

Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that “all of the precepts of the old establishment, with very few exceptions, have encompassed the increasing diversity of the American population. If most Americans embrace the sense of American meritocracy it’s going to mean some expressions, ideological as well as aesthetic, that are going to be alarming to us. I suppose part of it is this attitude that if you participate in certain things, you play by the rules. I’m not an advocate of the eroding of every standard, but I’m surprised that people are surprised.”

He makes an analogy between Serena challenging traditional tennis fashion and people wearing shorts on airplanes. “It used to be the precinct of the privileged to travel. It’s not anymore.”

Marcy DeVeaux, who teaches “Women and the Media” at Cal State Northridge, says, “The Williams sisters have been my example of strong, vibrant, attractive women who are not sexualized. They’re healthy. They look like women their age should look. They’re not emaciated.”


She adds, “I think Serena can play tennis in a tennis skirt and probably do quite well. I don’t know that a skin-tight black Lycra suit will help her game really, so why do it?”

Staff writer Gayle Pollard-Terry contributed to this report.