You know those hi-tech, form-fitting outfits your favorite tennis players rock every year at the US Open? It wasn’t always like that.
Modern tennis emerged in the late 1800s as a lawn sport for the British aristocracy, and players back then took the court in the elaborate Victorian clothing of the era. Today tennis is one of the most international sports in the world with top players from across the globe, and on-the-court fashion reflects that diversity with a huge range of styles influenced by everything from comfort and technology to personal taste and fashion statement-making.
What happened in between? A lot. As social changes shaped society throughout the 20th century, tennis fashion evolved accordingly — styles went from conservative to functional to downright wild, with each decade’s tennis fashion innovations reflecting the social norms and cultural shifts in play at the time.
As we gear up for the 2016 US Open on Aug 29 through Sep 11 — a tournament that has witnessed some of the game’s most influential historical moments — we look back at the evolution of tennis fashion over the decades. From Victorian finery and ’70s short shorts to the infamous skintight black spandex catsuit worn by Serena Williams at the 2002 US Open, it’s been a wild ride for tennis fashion — dig in below and don’t miss the latest and greatest looks at this year’s US Open.
Sportswear as we know it didn’t exist at the turn of the 20th century — in the absence of comfortable, breathable attire, players were left to wear the cumbersome Victorian clothing of the era. For women this meant cinched corsets, bellowing sleeves, wide hats embellished with ribbons, and court-length skirts over thick stockings (not an ankle in sight!). It was unthinkable for society women to be seen sweating at the time, and so wearing white became the norm because it hid perspiration stains.
Men also sported Victorian fashions, donning white flannel trousers and crisp button-up shirts (sometimes they even wore blazers and neckties). Comfortable clothing was still decades away, but at least these early tennis buffs were already appropriately dressed for high tea after the match.
Women’s styles remained unchanged for most of the ’10s until French player Suzanne Lenglen won Wimbledon in 1919 wearing a knee-length dress. Spectators were scandalized, with some even walking out due to the “shocking” display. Slightly shorter skirts started to catch on as a result of her bold choice.
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French player Suzanne Lenglen, who pioneered less restrictive styles for women in the ’10s and ’20s, demonstrates her graceful game in this vintage video.
Despite the shortening of women’s skirts, men continued to wear long pants on the court until 1932!
As the ’20s got roaring, women ditched the constraining styles of Victorian England in favor of looser, cocktail-inspired styles with skirts below the knee and stylish headwraps.
Men were still wearing long pants in the ’20s, but fussy dress shirts were replaced by more breathable, loose-knit fabrics on top — “Big” Bill Tilden ushered in the golden age of men’s tennis fashion in the early ’20s with short-sleeved shirts and preppy cable knit sweaters.
The 1930s saw the advent of more feminine, form-fitting silhouettes for women as skirts continued to shorten and pleats were added for a tailored touch. American player Helen Jacobs broke with tradition in 1933 and wore Bermuda shorts to Wimbledon, a watershed moment that opened the door to increased comfort and mobility.
A year earlier, Henry “Bunny” Austin became the first men’s player to wear shorts when he donned a pair at Wimbledon. It was a major moment, but the decade’s biggest fashion innovation came courtesy of René Lacoste, who designed a short-sleeved shirt made of light-weight piqué cotton and emblazoned with his signature Crocodile logo. Lacoste’s comfortable shirts caught on like wild fire — today his invention is known as the “polo shirt”, but it got its start on the tennis court.
Women’s styles in the ’40s became more functional — fashion mavericks like Katharine Hepburn helped popularize a smart-casual look that incorporated menswear and prioritized comfort, with shorter skirts, high-waisted shorts, and breathable blouse tops allowing increased mobility.
While some men continued to wear pants on the court, shorts on bottom and a Lacoste-style polo shirt on top became the norm among the game’s top players.
After the turn towards more masculine styles in the ’40s, the pendulum swung back to feminine styles in the ’50s as cinched waists, crisp whites, delicate details, and prim cardigans dominated the women’s circuit.
Mid-century men doubled down on the comfort of shorts and polo shirts — a look that has remained the standard (with some variations) to this day.
As the ’60s got swinging the “mod mini” made its way onto the court, with skirt hemlines rising above the knee for the first time. As second-wave feminism gained steam in the US, women began favoring looks akin to what players wear today — simple, streamlined, and sporty outfits that prioritized mobility and comfort.
Arthur Ashe offered a unique twist on the standard men’s outfit when he rocked a proto-hipster look at the 1968 US Open. Ashe’s short shorts and thick-framed black glasses were a hit with fans and paid off for his game, too — he defeated Dutch player Tom Okker in an epic finals match to earn his first Grand Slam title.
Along with the sexual revolution came shorter skirts and tighter fits for women, but the biggest development of the ’70s was the arrival of color. Until then all the major tournaments had required tennis whites, but TV viewers frequently complained that they couldn’t tell players apart, so the US Open allowed pastels for the first time in 1970. Slowly but surely, disco fever crept from the clubs to the courts as colors, elaborate patterns, and exaggerated collars became increasingly common.
On the men’s side shorts got shorter and hair got longer, with players like Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors leading the charge with super-short shorts and luscious locks kept in place by sporty ’70s headbands.
By 1986 professional tennis had switched to a bright yellow ball so TV viewers could more easily follow the action, and women responded accordingly, incorporating more color than ever into their outfits. Bold ’80s design motifs and futuristic fabrics also started making their way into players’ wardrobes — American player Anne White turned heads at Wimbledon in 1985 with a space-age onesie (the style didn’t catch on, but we admire her fashion fearlessness).
For men, shorts were shorter than ever in the ’80s. Case in point: John McEnroe, who popularized the matching polo shirt, headband, and tube socks look that became standard for the decade’s top players.
The ’90s saw the rise of ever-brighter colors on the women’s circuit as neon became the norm. Hot pinks and highlighter yellows were all the rage, and scrunchies ruled the court — just ask ’90s champ Steffi Graf!
But fashion advances on the women’s side took a backseat to the game-changing stylistic innovations of the one and only Andre Agassi, who dominated men’s tennis in the ’90s with his ferocious return game and wild personal style. Acid-washed denim? Yep. Neon spandex peeping out beneath athletic shorts? Check. An iconic mane of bleach-blonde hair? You bet. Agassi electrified tennis throughout the decade with both his fiery play and bold fashion choices, and he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest — and most entertaining — players of all time.
As the new millennium dawned, the anything-goes fashion ethos of the Agassi era remained — players established their own unique styles based on personal taste, with no easily definable standard. The biggest style story of the decade was undoubtedly the Williams Sisters, whose innovative and stylish outfits included everything from a skintight black spandex catsuit (Serena at the 2002 US Open) to a racy black lace dress with red piping (Venus at the 2010 French Open). Even when adhering to Wimbledon’s all-white clothing rule, Venus and Serena found sly ways to inject their personality into their apparel with revealing cuts, pops of neon, and fun embellishments like frills and exaggerated pleats.
Following Agassi’s retirement in the mid-’00s, fashion on the men’s circuit took a turn towards the tame. Swiss legend Roger Federer garnered attention in the mid-’00s when he started emblazoning hats, shirts, and sweaters with brand logos and eventually his own personal logo, but for the most part classic sporty comfort replaced flashy statement-making styles among men.
The ’10s are still underway, but so far the decade’s fashion trends have been dominated by technology and brand endorsements. On the women’s circuit, stylish stars are increasingly becoming muses to fashion-forward designers working with high-tech materials — Polish player Caroline Wozniacki is the muse for Stella McCartney for Adidas, while Canadian darling Eugenie Bouchard consistently wears custom Nike dresses that incorporate Dri-Fit mesh.
On the men’s side, Spanish champ Rafael Nadal is at the forefront of the high-tech garment game — the Nike crew shirt he wore at the 2016 Australian Open included AeroReact technology, which responds to his condition during match play — the more Nadal sweats, the more the fabric’s yarn opens for breathability. As apparel companies race to up their tech game, fans can expect to see more smart fabrics on the court in the future.
What’s next for tennis fashion? Don’t miss the 2016 US Open as the world’s best players bring their A-game — and the latest styles — to the court.