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This week, Serena Williams made what might be her most definitive fashion statement yet on the tennis court: She appeared at the French Open in a black Nike catsuit that her fans believed made her look like a superhero.
But the outfit was also a feminist statement of sorts. By bypassing the tennis skirt or dress women players typically wear, Williams directed all eyes to her impressive form. She likened the ventilated catsuit with a built-in sweetheart neckline, red waistband, and seams that accentuated her physique to one of the fierce looks the women in Black Panther wore.
“I feel like a warrior in it, like a warrior princess kind of, queen from Wakanda,” the tennis star said of the catsuit. “I’m always living in a fantasy world. I always wanted to be a superhero, and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero. I feel like a superhero when I wear it.”
A self-described “girly-girl,” Williams paired the suit with a sparkly heart necklace and safety pin-style earrings. Although she also said she wore the ensemble for “all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce,” the athlete had another reason for making a splash at the French Open.
On Wednesday, she debuted the first 12 pieces from her fashion line, Serena, and her innovative look at the tennis tournament helped draw attention to her unique sense of style. The collection includes outerwear with metallic accents, bralettes, athleisure, slip dresses, and a crop top that pays homage to Williams’s Compton roots. The body-conscious clothing, made of supple fabrics like satin and terrycloth, manages to exude sensuality and strength simultaneously, much like Williams herself.
While it’s practically a requirement now for any A-list celebrity to launch a clothing, beauty, or perfume line, Williams stands out from the rest. For one, she studied at fashion school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale; that means she’s not an uninvolved celebrity simply lending her name to a collection. Plus, she’s partnered with Nike, Puma, and HSN on previous collections, experiences that likely informed the decision-making process for her line.
Since childhood, Williams has shown off her style on the tennis court. Beaded braids, animal print, bright colors, tutu-style tennis skirts, and denim are just a handful of the styles she has embraced from the 1990s onward. All the while, she’s elicited praise, criticism, body-shaming, and misogynoir.
Well before the Wakanda-inspired Nike catsuit she wore on the court this week, Williams wore a short catsuit from Puma at the 2002 US Open that she helped design. The ensemble led to criticism that she was inappropriately dressed. But Williams wasn’t the first tennis star to wear a bodysuit during competition. In 1985, Anne White wore a catsuit as well. Both women’s sartorial choices sparked debate in popular culture, but their outfits were read differently, largely due to race, according to the scholar Jaime Schultz, who wrote a 2005 article titled “Reading the Catsuit,” published in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues.
Schultz noted: “White was admired because of her conventionally feminine attractiveness. Williams was praised for pushing the boundaries of what constituted that conventionally feminine attractiveness. White was scolded for accentuating her feminine assets; Williams was admonished for exhibiting her masculine muscularity. In other words, the white bodysuit on a white body was read differently than the black catsuit on the black body.”
Williams’s curvaceous, muscular build is certainly not the only reason the commentary surrounding her has differed from the commentary concerning other tennis players. Early in Serena’s career, she and Venus wore their hair in beaded braids, a stark contrast from the ponytails of their competitors. The Williams sisters reportedly were the targets of insensitive jokes about their hair and literally turned heads for rocking beaded braids, a staple for many black girls during that period. An official even penalized Venus Williams during a game when some of her hair beads fell loose. He said the beads had caused a disturbance, a call that provoked her to lash out against the microaggression.
“I am not causing a disturbance here,” she said, adding, “There’s no disturbance. No one is being disturbed. ... As if I was doing this on purpose. Do you see me pulling hair, pulling them out? This is so out of control. This is out of control!”
While Venus Williams, who has a slimmer build than her sister, perhaps hasn’t faced the amount of body-shaming that Serena has, both sisters have repeatedly been criticized for their tennis attire, even when no catsuit was involved. In 2013, the Daily News published a slide show titled “Serena & Venus Williams’ outrageous tennis outfits.” The gallery showed Serena playing in a pleated denim skirt and studded top as well as in neon pinks, oranges, and greens. One image showed off her name-plate door-knocker earrings. She wore the jewelry during the 2007 Sony Ericsson Open, well before such earrings had experienced their recent renaissance.
It’s unfair to say the response to Serena Williams’s fashion has been mostly negative. At times, she’s been praised for her style while her competitors have underwhelmed. During the 2016 Wimbledon tournament, she wore a white pleated tennis dress from Nike that gave off serious prima ballerina vibes. She glowed in the ensemble, which was perfectly tailored to fit her. In contrast, a similar dress worn by players like Rebecca Peterson and Maria Sakkari was dubbed a disaster because it was ill-fitting and flew up repeatedly during play.
Williams has pushed the boundaries of fashion on the tennis court so far that when she wears something simple, like the black-and-gray outfit she wore to the 2016 Italian Open (which she won, by the way), she’s criticized for being boring. In short, when she steps onto the court, fans expect her to bring it. That means the bright colors, braided or big hair, and unconventional ensembles that once earned the girl from Compton stares.
The Williams sisters never seemed to care that some spectators thought they didn’t look the part of tennis champs. Rather than fold into themselves by wearing muted colors and conventional outfits during competition, they continued to experiment with their style. And that self-confidence has made Serena, and Venus, someone to watch on and off the court.