Flappers, forehands and infamy: A brief history of tennis fashion scandals

Tom Humberstone, creator of the graphic novel ‘Suzanne,’ offers a guest essay today on tennis and fashion.

Here’s something you probably didn’t expect to see on Smash Pages — a column on tennis and fashion. Today we’re pleased to present a guest column from Tom Humberstone, the creator of the recently released Suzanne from Avery Hill Publishing.

In Suzanne, Humberstone tells the story of Suzanne Lenglen, one of the unsung heroes of women’s sports. She became a championship tennis player at the age of 15, breaking records for ticket sales and match winning streaks, all while breaking societal norms with her playing outfits during the trailblazing jazz age.

In his essay, Humberstone traces the advances Lenglen made in both tennis and fashion to the present day. You can also check out a few pages from his graphic novel.

by Tom Humberstone

When Serena Williams stepped onto Arthur Ashe stadium for what could be the last time, the world watched with nervous anticipation, awaiting answers to a volley of questions. Having recently announced her “evolution” away from playing tennis, people were curious what this final US Open might look like for her. Would she make a fairy-tale run and secure that elusive, record-extending 24th major title? Or, given her recent form in Cincinnati, would she exit in the first round? Is it really the end? What will a tennis world without Serena Williams look like? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what will her final outfit be?

Considering how much unnecessary emphasis is placed upon the appearance of sportswomen, that probably sounds glib – but I mean that entirely sincerely. Throughout her career, Serena’s outfits on the court have always been important, and have made as many headlines as her astonishing career. As Serena herself once said: “When it comes to fashion, you don’t want to be a repeat offender.”

That being said, the expectations placed on women in tennis to look a certain way can be astonishingly hypocritical and pernicious. It would be disingenuous to talk about the links between tennis and fashion without acknowledging this. From the casual misogynistic comments by BBC commentator John Inverdale, to the pervasive misogynoir of any discussion about the Williams sisters, the sport can attract some incredibly retrograde views. 

The relationship between fashion and tennis has always been intertwined. Perhaps more than any other sport, there’s an opportunity for players to impress their own personality, style and taste on the court. It’s a game with an inherent aesthetic attraction that can feel more akin to watching a choreographed dance. As such, enterprising designers have treated the court as their own dynamic catwalk. And not without a little controversy.

Tennis, as we understand it today, began as a Victorian pastime that was principally played at garden parties in the 1870s. The sport was played in outfits that, while fashionable, were not suited for physical exertion. In the women’s game, this largely continued into the early Twentieth Century. Players wore dresses that reached the floor, whale-bone corsets that restricted their breathing, and overshirts with high collars and long sleeves that were tightly fastened. It was a miracle anyone could make it though the day like this, let alone win a tennis match.

In 1919, Suzanne Lenglen changed the game, and by extension, the way women dressed, forever. She won Wimbledon wearing a calf-length pleated dress and eschewed the corset for a loose, short-sleeved top. It scandalized the tennis world and the English public.

Lenglen was not the first to bring modern sensibilities to on-court outfits. But her arrival in the aftermath of a pandemic and world war marked the beginning of an era that was eager to forget its traumatic past by indulging in hedonism and frivolous entertainment. Lenglen’s collaboration with French couturier Jean Patou saw waistlines get lower while hemlines got higher. This androgynous, tubular shape of the “Garçonne” aesthetic soon gave rise to the “Flapper” of the Jazz Age with Lenglen as its biggest star. 

This was the arrival of tennis as a fashion trendsetter with canny designers recognizing that the active-wear of one generation could quickly become the formal attire of the next.

English player “Bunny” Austin would agree. He arguably invented shorts in 1932 when he asked his tailor to cut off the legs of his trousers on account of a circulatory condition he felt was hampering him on the court.

One of Suzanne Lenglen’s peers – René Lacoste – also had a hand in changing the future of fashion. A successful French player himself, he was known in the press as “The Crocodile,” which later became the emblem of his new clothing company. The company specialized in polo shirts that he felt were better suited to play tennis in than the long-sleeved buttoned shirts that men wore before. 

Another of Lenglen’s contemporaries during the height of her domination of the sport was Ted Tinling, who used to umpire her matches. He later became a designer himself and was a huge figure in the world of tennis fashion throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. 

In 1949 Tinling caused a scandal at Wimbledon that was to overshadow that of even Lenglen. American player Getrude “Gussie” Moran asked Tinling to design her a new outfit that year. The skirt he designed was so short that Moran’s lace-trimmed underwear (also designed by Tinling) was visible during her matches. The preceding outrage led to the matter being discussed in Parliament with Moran apparently bringing “vulgarity and sin into tennis.” 

Parisian couturiers and idiosyncratic designers like Tinling largely fell away from the sport as brands and sponsorship deals became more prevalent in the modern Open Era. But while the styles of players have become more uniform, there are still outliers who continue to surprise and inspire with their on-court outfits.

For over two decades, Serena Williams has been one of those athletes. She stepped onto Arthur Ashe in a regal, crystal-studded layered skirt inspired by ballerina regalia. Her daughter, Olympia, sat in her box wearing a matching dress. Her sister, Venus – a multiple major title winner herself – watched on anxiously, wearing items from her own high-end fashion line EleVen.

In the end, Serena won that match and went on to beat the World Number Two in the following round. Those she inspired are following in her footsteps – with both Coco Gaugh and Naomi Osaka collaborating with their sponsors on unique on-court outfits and their own fashion lines.

Meanwhile, the past two years have seen the rise of tennis-core as Gen Z teens have embraced a sort of preppy, billionaire cosplay in what Vogue’s Emma Specter has dubbed the summer of “second-wife energy.”

It seems fashion and tennis are not quite ready to end their successful doubles partnership just yet.

Tom Humberstone’s graphic novel about Suzanne Lenglen, titled Suzanne, is out now.

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