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Wimbledon’s First Fashion Scandal

Debates over women’s tennis clothes matter partly because they are a reliable predictor of wider trends. Athletic wear tends to forecast fashion, introducing high-tech materials and aerodynamic silhouettes that later migrate to everyday dress; tennis clothing, which is unique to individual players, has much greater potential influence than, say, baseball or soccer uniforms. One hundred years ago, tennis brought us shorter skirts, heels, and hairstyles, and less restrictive undergarments. Today it launches trends such as catsuits, unicorn hair, and athletic gear made from recycled ocean plastic. On June 23, 1931, the Spanish player Lilí Álvarez—“well known, not only for her tennis, but also for her extremely chic appearance on the courts,” reported Vogue—wore Elsa Schiaparelli’s “divided skirt” at Wimbledon, having first road tested the garment at the French Open. Though her knees were covered and her calves were sheathed in stockings, Álvarez was, technically, the first woman to play the tournament in shorts. Similar culottes soon became a staple of 1930s high fashion.

In 1977, the designer Ted Tinling, who was personally responsible for such Wimbledon scandals as Gertrude “Gorgeous Gussie” Moran’s lace-trimmed panties in 1949 and Françoise Dürr’s backless halter dress in 1973, wrote in The New York Times: “I don’t know why tennis clothes have the capacity to cause such tremendous emotions among men.” When, in 1985, Anne White asked her sponsor, Pony, to design a white spandex bodysuit to keep her legs warm at Wimbledon, her attire drew jeers and whistles from the crowd. Although the form-fitting garment conformed to the “predominantly white” rule, the tournament referee felt that it stretched the definition of “suitable tennis attire.” When play resumed the next day, White wore a traditional tennis skirt, though her bodysuit had made headlines.

Tinling immediately declared White’s bodysuit “the next logical step” in women’s tennis attire, yet a similar controversy erupted just last year, when Serena Williams’s Black Panther–esque Nike catsuit prompted a rule change at the French Open, which then led to public outcry. Williams had recently given birth, and the sleek compression suit was designed to prevent post-pregnancy blood clots. King herself weighed in, tweeting: “The policing of women’s bodies must end.” The Women’s Tennis Association altered its dress code to explicitly allow leggings and compression shorts without a skirt for its 2019 season; however, the WTA doesn’t govern the Grand Slams. Wimbledon fashion has come a long way since Lenglen shook up Centre Court, but don’t expect to see female players wearing pants anytime soon.

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