A hundred years ago a short skirt was considered to be calf-length. Today the idea of a short skirt has taken off and has landed well above the knee — and is getting shorter. This is not only evident when it comes to women's everyday apparel, but it is also apparent in women's sporting apparel. While a majority of female athletics have made the switch to wear shorts or pants, women's tennis is still one of the few sports where women don skirts or dresses during competition.
There is no governing body telling these female tennis players to wear skirts and dresses, but they still choose to, for the most part, which speaks volumes to the tradition of the sport.
"I think other people come who come to the match are surprised that we wear skirts and dresses, but to all of us it's really normal," UGA senior tennis player Kate Fuller said. "The way that the skirts are now, it's so comfortable. It's like wearing a spandex and then another layer over that. We like them because they're also feminine. Dresses and skirts are unique to tennis and we really embrace that. It's a thing we really like about our sport."
The initial purpose the alteration of women's tennis uniform served was to improve the mobility and performance of the player. When women first began playing tennis in the 1860s, they wore full-length dresses made of heavy materials like flannel in addition to wearing multiple layers, including bustles and sometimes a fur.
Sitting court-side at a women's tennis match in the late 1800s to mid-1900s, one would never dream of seeing as much as an ankle of a female tennis player. Now, fans can expect to see ankles, calves, thighs and upper thighs. One brush of wind could put a female tennis player's backside on display.
As generations pass, there is evidence of social change far greater than the sports world finding its way into the arenas, onto courts and onto fields. Women wore long dresses and skirts off the court when they first started playing tennis. It only made sense to wear the same thing on the court because that was what was socially acceptable at that time.
"As styles change for women, particularly in the 20s, when skirts got shorter, tennis skirts got shorter," department head of the textiles, merchandising and interior Dr. Patricia Hunt-Hurst said. "If skirts were knee-length in the 20s — which isn't very short for us today — then maybe some tennis courts might pick it up. Wimbledon in particular had regulations of how short a skirt could be. That progressed when some women started wearing shorts on tennis courts. Some tennis clubs did not want women wearing shorts because women wore skirts, they didn't wear men's clothing."
A whim at Wimbledon
Wimbledon proved to be the stage where female players experimented with fashion. In 1884, Maud Watson won the first Ladies' Wimbledon Championships wearing all white. White allowed players to sweat without the perspiration noticeably staining their clothing.
Today, many players — Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka to name a few — wear bright, vibrant colors that hide sweat less often, caring little about what some may view as a fashion faux pas.
May Sutton can be credited with the concept of the short-sleeved uniforms seen today. She wore one of her father's shirts at the 1905 Wimbledon Championships, claiming that it provided better mobility and that the long sleeves were too hot.
In 1919, Suzanne Lenglen pushed the envelope for women's tennis apparel by donning more eccentric garb. She wore a light dress that came up to the middle of her calves, short sleeves, shiny white stockings that were rolled to her knees and a headband.
The one thing that has remained static for women's tennis apparel is the skirt or dress. The length may recede, but it is still there, nonetheless.
"I think the tradition of the sport plays a big factor," professor in sports journalism Vicki Michaelis said. "Tennis has been widely popular for a long time. It was an accepted standard and no one really thought twice about it, so no one still thinks twice about."
One look that did raise eyebrows was Sharapova's 2008 Wimbledon look. She sported a short, tuxedo-like all-white suit, with a sheer top and opaque shorts. Sharapova is known for her fashionable choices, but this look was different. It was not a dress or a skirt — a look tennis fans weren't accustomed to seeing her wear in competition.
Can women's tennis uniforms we stew today distract form what the audience could be focusing on — the player's performance?
"It's a very fine line. You don't have to go too far back in women's history to realize that objectifying still takes place [like] with Anna Kornikova," Michaelis said. "The Australian women's basketball team for instance wears very skin-tight, body-hugging uniforms. There's a lot of debate about is that really the most comfortable thing for them to be performing in. That's what it should come down to — what they feel best about wearing."
Comfort and fashion are subjective.
Serving a gender role
What may not be as subjective from a societal standpoint, is how a female athlete is expected to present herself in order to conform to societal norms. Fashion and attractiveness can play a great role in that.
"That is very much the model of a gendered perspective where females are still seen as females regardless of what they do so that sports are going to reflect what we in Women's Studies call femininity," founding director of the women's studies department Patricia Del Rey said. "Femininity is a social construct. It has characteristics that are taught to girls and then is born. Femininity requires that females have to be very focused on their appearance."
The prettier and more fashionable a female athlete appears — the more attention she gets — the more success she can reap in monetary benefits.
"It's a manifestation of society just trying to get comfortable with women as athletes--women in powerful roles," Michaelis said. "It's going to take society a long time to accept them for what they are, and not try to dress them in a certain way in order to say, 'OK we are comfortable with that because they look feminine.' I think what it distracts from is what we should appreciate about the game. But look at the media coverage of sports — of women's sports. If the women across the court from you looks better, she is going to get more coverage. She is going to get more endorsements."
Female athletes in general have to deal with the fact that their looks become a part of their brand. More revealing clothing can contribute to that, but the apparel female women tennis players don still has one primary job, and it's not to make them prettier.
"Over time, the uniforms have become more functional, so they are designed to accommodate the movements of the sport," Hunt-Hurst said. "What we've seen in the 20th and 21st century is that sports costumes can be very fashionable, but there is also function still in there, whether it's stretch fabric in certain parts for the body to be able to move better, it is to make performance that much easier."
Being fashionable and wearing performing-adjusting gear should not come at a price for women tennis players—but it does.
"If we can value just the performance aspect of sport of being fast, or reaching a ball, or doing the things that are necessary for skill in the sport that will be something that would be great," Del Ray said. "The problem is, the system we live in is male centered and a lot of power is on the male gaze. We are trying as females to look a certain to be approved by the male gaze and that even enters sports and it shouldn't."
United by uniform
While uniforms exist to distinguish between different players in the pro circuit, they have the opposite influence in college tennis.
"There aren't a whole lot of other schools in the country that gets to have Georgia bedazzled on a dress," Fuller said in reference to Georgia's 2009 uniforms. "The Gym Dogs inspired us to do that. On the pro level — Sharapova, Serena, and Venus — they all have their own lines, and they design their own dresses, but we love wearing the red and black and wearing the 'G' on our shirts. It's a big deal to us and it brings us together rather than pulls us apart."
With the changes that have taken place so far in women's tennis apparel, it is a wonder how the uniforms will continue to evolve.
"The other day we were talking about how we are going to come back and look [at the walls in the women's tennis clubhouse] and see our uniforms and then see how the new, younger generation is going to look, senior Lilly Kimbell said. "It's going to be funny to see how weird our clothes are going to look."