SOMETIME last week, center court at Wimbledon began to look more like a fashion show than a tennis tournament. There was Serena Williams warming up in a chic, belted, white trench coat under cloudless skies, Roger Federer as Jay Gatsby in a white cardigan with an “F” insignia, and Maria Sharapova getting trounced in a sheer, pleated-front bib top and shorts. They call that a tennis tuxedo by the way, not a Tennessee tuxedo, and her opponent, fellow Russian Alla Kudryavtseva said afterward, “I don’t like her outfit. Can I put it this way? It was one of my motivations to beat her.”
All three ensembles were designed by Nike, and the tennis tux shirt, which I think was cute in a high-low kind of way, is $55 at Nike.com. But it was Venus Williams who packed the biggest style punch in a twist-front tennis dress from her own collection, EleVen. Shoppers can buy the piece this month at the fast fashion emporium Steve & Barry’s.
It was quite a turn for Wimbledon, which began in 1877 when tennis was a sport of the Victorian elite, to have Williams in her own brand of cheap chic for the masses, even if she did spend a lot of time tugging at the top to make sure it didn’t fall down.
Fans may scoff that fashion is taking over the tournament, but they shouldn’t. One of the joys of watching Wimbledon is that it is one of the last bastions of a formal dress code. By now, we’re used to seeing the Naked Cowboy in Times Square, college students wearing flip-flops to the White House and mourners at President Reagan’s memorial donning cargo shorts and baseball hats.
But at Wimbledon, dress whites are still de rigueur and any woman wearing a low-cut top can still be ejected from the court.
While Sharapova’s tennis tux isn’t likely to make it to the prom, and Williams’ tennis dress will probably have limited appeal, it’s fascinating to see how players express themselves within the confines of a dress code, and how the most subtle (or not so subtle) gesture can speak volumes. That’s what true style is.
Despite its lofty beginnings, tennis has influenced the way the world dresses like no other sport. Our summer uniform of tennis shoes, shorts and polo shirts filtered down from the court. And long before Nike, Adidas, Elesse and other sports brands signed multimillion-dollar deals to dress players, fashion designers got into the game. The popularity of tennis nudged them to develop sportswear, edging formality out of daily life and the runway.
In the early days of Wimbledon, women were confined to long dresses with sleeves and stockings. But gradually, tennis became a vehicle for sartorial emancipation. Twenties-era champion Suzanne Lenglen was a style icon, thanks to her revolutionary attire, according to Diane Elisabeth Poirier’s book “Tennis Fashion.”
Jean Patou made her a fashionably functional knee-length, pleated skirt and sleeveless cardigan. And when Lenglen retired, she became a designer herself.
Other high-fashion designers followed Patou’s lead in designing tennis apparel, including Lanvin, Rochas, Schiaparelli and Hermes. And today, sportswear is a foundation of nearly every major fashion brand.
As the popularity of tennis soared, so did its stars, and athletes such as Fred Perry became the original celebrity designers. French player Rene Lacoste, nicknamed “the Crocodile” for his fierceness, introduced the Lacoste tennis shirt in 1929 with its embroidered alligator logo. That pique, collared shirt became a wardrobe staple for men and women, and the foundation of the Ralph Lauren empire.
By the 1970s, players were known less for their individual style than their associations with the sports footwear and apparel giants that marketed their images. Aside from Anne White’s cat suit, Martina Navratilova’s hot pants and Andre Agassi’s mullet, tennis in the ‘80s and ‘90s was about performance wear -- second skin fibers and breathable fabrics. It was about substance over style.
For better or worse, that has changed, and tennis is once again in fashion. The Williams sisters have had a lot to do with it. Remember their hair beads from Wimbledon ’99? And Venus’ corset dress designed by Diane von Furstenberg and Reebok from ’03? Players have reached the status of top models (and some have even modeled). They walk the red carpet, sit in the front row at New York Fashion Week and appear in the pages of Vogue.
And why not? Basketball players wear the same old jerseys soaked in sweat at every game, and baseball players can only personalize their uniforms with a mud stain here or there. But in tennis, players can compete and look good doing it. Which means the grass runway isn’t likely to go away any time soon.