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Time for Tennis: A Tennis Apparel Cheat Sheet

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You know Frank—he's been writing about menswear, sales, television, new shops, the recession, Lisa Loeb, the Golden Girls and getting blasted for Racked for over two years. Well, we think it's time you got to know him and his quirky-irreverent views on life and fashion even better with his column: Love, Frank. Taking the form of an open letter and always signed with love, Frank will rant about whatever style-related conundrum he encounters in a given week. So buckle your two-toned leather Moschino belts, folks, it's going to be ? Something.


Players can still get away with emulating Bill Tilden, but you should; via Historias Deportivas.

Dear Tennis Fans and Lovers of Pique,

Tennis is in the air! The Wimbledon finals are this weekend; the French Open just wrapped last month; and—as you know by psychotically following Anna Wintour's whereabouts at all times always—the US Open happens right here in Queens around September Fashion Week (how does she get from Flushing Meadows to Lincoln Center so quickly?)

These days, tennis stars wear just about whatever they want—take for instance those Williams sisters in their crazy fluorescent stretch onesies and teeny tiny animal-print skirts that wick and compress and stretch and perform. This, of course, was not always the case.

Historically, players donned stockings, bloomers and breeches; and in the late 19th Century (even after canvas, rubber-soled shoes—your modern sneaker—were invented for the sport in 1886) athletes dressed in aristocratic day wear. Imagine pounding the court in full-length flannel trousers, dress shirts and v-neck jumpers. Women had it worse—try voluminous floor-length skirts with bustles, corsets and monster bonnets. But then, in those days ladies referred to their version of the sport as "pat ball." So genteel! It was, clearly, a different time.

All that wool was generally white, the best color for disguising sweat (which, I mean, there must've been plenty if people were trying to play tennis in suits). Hence the term "Tennis Whites."

In 1887, tennis prodigy Lottie Dod won Wimbledon in a calf-length skirt, but managed to avoid sensation for two reasons. She was only 15; and the revealing skirt was actually her school uniform—crisis averted!

After 1900, however, things started getting really nuts: In 1905 a player, Mary Sutton, was sick of her hot arms and general constriction. She played Wimbledon in her father's dress shirts; cuffs rolled up so the breeze could roll in. Following suit, Susan Lenglen hit Wimbledon in short dresses, bare legs and a bandeau around her head in 1919; and Helen Jacobs wore Bermuda shorts to the US Open in 1933. Each was a milestone and a bit of a scandal—but all three changed the way people (and especially woman) dressed for the sport.

Generations before Britney, crotch shots started causing tennis controversy in 1949. Wimbledon star Gussy Moran showed up in a tiny skirt over lace-trimmed panties. Photographers reportedly laid on the ground to photograph her knickers from below—which was years before Marilyn Monroe met that subway grate.

As for men: Big Bill Tilden basically invented the universal ideal of tennis preppery in 1920, donning an array of cable knits and v-necks in a symphony of whites. Twelve years later, Henry "Bunny" Austin made major waves. He wore shorts at Wimbledon.

In the meantime, French tennis star René Lacoste christened himself "the Crocodile" after betting and winning a crocodile suitcase in a match. Henceforth, Lacoste had crocodiles embroidered on his shirts and blazers. A few years later, in 1933, Lacoste (the brand) was born. Now a global fashion player across all categories and practically a uniform for the prep set, the company claims to have been the first to put a brand name on the outside of a garment. This is disputed by Jantzen but, nonetheless, French pique polos may be to blame for early aughts logo-mania.

A short time later, English tennis player Fred Perry brought us the modern sweatband; and a few years later debuted his own version of the pique polo at Wimbledon in 1952. Replacing the crocodile with a laurel wreath, the shirts sold gangbusters, and the Fred Perry label was born. And, years before Saab-driving yuppies were pairing Lacoste polos with madras shorts, hip British youths adopted Fred Perry, leading to the brand's exhaustive array of colors and iconic status amongst Mods as early as the late 1950s.

Which leads us to the issue of color: Until the 1970s tennis professionals wore white. The end. But, as a way of distinguishing players for TV audiences, outfitters began producing garments in pastels with contrast collars or trim, or subtle striping. A true color revolution followed—leaving Wimbledon the last beacon of all (or mostly) white all the time. Speaking of color: Modern tennis greats Björn Borg and Andre Agassi made waves for their choices. No surprise the former lends his name to a garish underwear line.

A final milestone worth noting: The tennis bracelet. In 1987 Chris Evert literally put a game on pause at the US Open when her diamond bracelet went missing. Zales took note.

As for you, when you're at a match: Go with those looks immortalized by Bill Tilden. Go preppy; embrace natural fibers; shop Ralph, Lacoste, Tommy and Fred. You don't need fabric wicking and performance stretch to hang out on the bleachers. You just need sunglasses; and to look rich.

Gaps filled in with the help of Lacoste and Fred Perry on Wikipedia, New York, Livestrong, and Fibre 2 Fashion.

· Love, Frank [Racked]