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Against the all-white rule at Wimbledon

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-06-2017 Pahull Bains

Sports is an activity defined by rules—for arm wrestling, water polo and everything in between, there’s a handbook with reams of regulations, lists of fouls and offences, pages of policies and procedures. But one rule in tennis that has long irked players is Wimbledon’s rigid dress code. Andre Agassi, a player both celebrated and ridiculed for his clashing neon ensembles in the 1990s, famously boycotted the tournament for three years in an act of defiance against the strict guidelines.

The championship’s strictly enforced rule of all-white ensembles on court is a long-time tradition, put into place by the AELTC in the 19th century. “In the late 1800s,” Emily Chertoff wrote in 2012 in The Atlantic, “the rich in America (and England) had adopted summer white as a symbol of their leisure. Since white clothing dirties easily, it didn’t recommend itself to factory workers and domestic servants in a dry-cleaning-less era of weekly baths.... Since tennis had long been a summer game for the rich, the rich wore white to play tennis.... Gradually, white for tennis became a rule, so that in 1890 Wimbledon mandated all-white outfits for players.”

As players found inventive ways to flout this rule over the decades, Wimbledon officials began to amend and update the rulebook in an effort to rid it of any ambiguity. Currently, Wimbledon.com states categorically that, among other things: White does not include off-white or cream; there should be no solid mass or panel of colouring; a single trim of colour around the neckline and around the cuff of the sleeve is acceptable but must be no wider than 1cm; shoes must be almost entirely white, including the soles; and any undergarments that either are or can be visible during play (including due to perspiration) must also be completely white except for a single trim of colour no wider than 1cm.

Yes, everything—down to underwear—is scrutinized. In 2015, Roger Federer told reporters, “I just find it quite extreme to what extent it’s got to be white.... But, then again, it is what it is. You know, I’m happy, I’m proud to be here. So whatever, it’s okay.”

That’s right—it is what it is. But it wasn’t always this way. Lounge takes a look at the styles, signatures and trends that have shaped Wimbledon fashion since its start in 1877.

1880s: It takes a certain kind of prowess to play a spirited game of tennis covered from head to toe, but the earliest female Wimbledon players pulled it off. In 1884, when the inaugural ladies’ championship was held, British player Maud Watson won the title wearing a high-collared, long-sleeved dress. According to Alan Little, author of Maud Watson: The First Wimbledon Lady Champion, “Maud generally chose to wear a white, light wool, ankle-length skirt, with a small bustle, a long-sleeved silk jersey blouse and a sailor hat.”

1900s: British tennis champion Dorothea Lambert Chambers won seven Wimbledon titles between 1903 and 1914 wearing a corset and multiple petticoats.

Suzanne Lenglen. Photographs from Getty Images

1920s: Drop-waist dresses and below-the-knee hemlines gained traction as the style du jour out on the streets, and the trend made its way on to the tennis court as well. In 1926, six-time Wimbledon winner Suzanne Lenglen’s appearance on court in a sleeveless pleated dress by designer Jean Patou prompted Vogue to write: “The French champion wears a tennis costume that is extraordinarily chic in the freedom, the suitability, and the excellence of its simple lines.”

1932: US player Alice Marble became the first woman to play in shorts instead of a skirt, and landed on the cover of Life magazine two years later along with a feature that noted, “Newspaper writers like to think of Alice Marble as a glamour girl... They call her the ‘streamlined Venus of the tennis courts.’ All this is nonsense. She is a pretty girl who looks well in shorts. Her arms and legs are too long and muscular, and she plays too much of a slambang game of tennis to be glamorous.... She is somewhat of a tomboy, hits a tennis ball harder than do most men. In fact, if she had her way, she would play only in men’s tournaments.”

1933: In the late 1920s, René Lacoste, tennis champ extraordinaire, designed shirts that were exported and advertised as “the status symbol of the competent sportsman”. The now ubiquitous short-sleeved cotton piqué polo shirt (with a crocodile logo embroidered on the chest in reference to his on-court nickname, “The Crocodile”) was an alternative to the stiff, long-sleeved shirts being worn at the time and became an instant hit. After his retirement, he began marketing the shirt in earnest, launching La Chemise Lacoste in 1933 with friend André Gillier, president of the largest French knitwear company at the time.

1949: American player Gussie Moran caused quite a stir when, in the course of play, her short skirt revealed a pair of lace-trimmed knickers. According to the Telegraph, this daring sartorial choice—conceived by designer and former tennis player Ted Tinling—prompted the AELTC committee to reprimand her for “bringing vulgarity and sin” to tennis. (Tinling was at the centre of another controversy in 1958 thanks to the gold lamé panties he designed for American player Karol Fageros.)

1952: Who knew that Fred Perry, the first British player to win all four Grand Slam titles, was the man behind the sweatband as we know it today? Apparently, it was a chance encounter between Perry, who would wrap medical gauze around his wrist to wipe sweat off his brow while playing, and retired Austrian footballer Tibby Wegner in the 1940s that led to the pair co-designing a sweat-deterring wristband. After numerous attempts, they settled on a version made of terry cloth, and began distributing them to other players on the circuit. In 1952, Fred Perry Sportswear, founded by Perry and Wegner, then went on to launch its own version of the tennis polo—a crisp white, slim-fit, cotton piqué shirt with a laurel wreath logo.

1960s: As “mod fashion”, a bold colour- and graphics-infused trend influenced by pop art, became the mood of the moment, tennis players began to adapt the look for their on-court style. According to Allure magazine, “streamlined tunics with pops of gingham” became popular, as did graphic shorts worn by players like Virginia Wade, Lorna Greville-Collins and Marlys Burel. And of course, with the advent of the mini skirt, hemlines began to inch further above the knee.

1963: When adidas designed the first leather tennis shoe back in the 1960s, with three lines of perforation on the sides to mimic their logo and green foam padding to protect the Achilles tendon, little did they know what its staying power would be. Though it was initially named after French tennis player Robert Haillet, Stan Smith signed on to endorse the shoe after the 1972 Wimbledon win that made him World No.1. (It wasn’t until 2014 though, buoyed by the new-found patronage of fashion insiders and rap stars alike, that the adidas Stan Smiths were rereleased, going on to become a full-blown cultural phenomenon.)

Björn Borg.

1970s: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a more playful on-court style took hold, with Sweden’s Björn Borg opting for white polo shirts accented with bands or stripes of colour, typically red, navy or green. GQ notes in a recent piece on Borg’s trend-setting style: “Fans lost their minds when Borg hijacked the overly formal sportswear of the ’70s. He wore player whites with then legit revolutionary bands of colour and it made him a pioneer. The gold chain took it a step further and made him a style hero.” Incidentally, Borg was the inspiration behind Richie Tenenbaum’s look in The Royal Tenenbaums.

1974: Italian knitwear-turned-sportswear company Fila signed a deal with Borg, the brand’s first major endorser. Fila’s former creative director, Freya Tamayo, told the Los Angeles Times in 2008: “Fila was the first to bring colour into the tennis clubs. We broke the mould.”

Anne White in a bodysuit.

1985: Despite the 1980s’ unabashed love for leotards, it still came as quite a shock to viewers when American player Anne White showed up in a skin-tight white lycra bodysuit (Ted Tinling strikes again!) for her match against Pam Shriver, who later told reporters that it was “the most bizarre, stupid-looking thing I’ve ever seen on a tennis court”. According to the BBC, White was “quietly told by the Wimbledon authorities not to wear it the next day”.

Andre Agassi.

1980s and 1990s: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, players like Chris Evert and Billie Jean King had taken to wearing their all-white ensembles with touches of pastels like pale yellow and lavender. Later, “perhaps taking a cue from Andre Agassi, colour brightened considerably, going from pastel to bright neon”, American Vogue wrote in 2011. “Also, lightweight breathable fabrics like nylon and spandex were introduced, as seen on Monica Seles. (Seles favoured Fila in the earlier, and Nike in the latter, half of the ’90s.)”

1991: Andre Agassi, lover of neon, took a three-year break from Wimbledon (from 1988-90) reportedly in rebellion against the all-white rule. When he returned to the London court in 1991, it was in pristine white from head to toe. “Wimbledon is a place where I learnt to wear white, where I learnt to bow,” Agassi told CNN. “It’s a place where I learnt to accept and to come to appreciate (tradition).”

2003: Venus Williams brought a high-fashion touch to her ongoing collaboration with Reebok by co-designing a dress with famed New York designer Diane von Furstenberg for Wimbledon that year. Though there was nothing unusual about the crisp white dress from the front, it featured a daring criss-cross lace-up at the back. “What I really wanted was for it to be very fashion-forward and very eye-catching,” Williams told Vogue. “I can’t take all the credit, but I’ll take half the credit.”

Roger Federer’s ‘London skyline’ sneakers.

2012: Roger Federer, with whom Nike signed a 10-year contract in 2008, co-designed a pair of tennis sneakers, the Zoom Vapor 9 Tour Aj3s, with the brand’s American designer, Tinker Hatfield. Two years later, they introduced a new iteration of the shoe, inspired by Michael Jordan’s signature Air Jordans. At Wimbledon 2016, Federer wore a customized version of the shoe—featuring the London skyline and the number 7—to represent his seven Wimbledon titles.

2016: As a prime example of the many battles female athletes have to fight, all Twitter cared about after Serena Williams’ quarter-final match against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova were her nipples, visible under a figure-hugging Nike halter-neck dress.

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