Serena Williams’ Catsuit: The latest in a long line of controversial attire in women’s tennis

March 5, 2019

Image by zhukovsky/depositphotos.com

In August of 2018, world champion tennis star Serena Williams faced backlash about the Nike catsuit she wore to three matches in the French Open. The two main reasons she wore this full body catsuit? One, she had been struggling with blood clots after the birth of her child, and the pants helped with circulation. Two, she wanted to show other moms that there is no reason to be ashamed of their post-child bodies, and that if their goal is to get back in shape then it is absolutely attainable! But to the president of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, this would not stand. Williams’ catsuit was promptly banned, with Giudicelli stating “It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.”

And how did Williams respond? By rocking an over-the-top tutu designed by Virgil Abloh of Off-white, a not so silent clapback to the strict policing of women’s clothing (pictured here).

But the real question here is, how could a outfit that was designed with the player’s health concerns in mind possibly disrespect the game and the court it is being played on? It’s probably for the same reason they wear only white on the Wimbledon court – tradition. Tradition that is proving itself outdated in the 21st century.

Serving Up Some History

Tennis started as a game played by the upper class, and having the wealth privilege to play was seen as a status symbol. This is where the Wimbledon all-white rule comes from. In the 1880’s, the lower class worked with their hands and would struggle to keep white clothing clean. But this also marked the beginning of limiting female players on the court. In this Victorian era of all-white outfits, women were also required to wear full skirts, petticoats, and corsets, limiting their mouvements. It’s no surprise that women have been fighting for over a century for their uniforms to have the same comfort and playability of the men’s. But it seemed that every step of the way, and every advance they made, was met with scrutiny and controversy.

Court Crusaders

Let’s take a brief dive into the controversy around female tennis players’ outfits:

 

Wimbledon, 1949 – Gertrude “Gussie” Moran is criticized for the lace lined bike-short style underwear that became visible while she was playing. The England Club told her and the world that it brought “vulgarity and sin to tennis”. Morran was ranked as the no.4 female tennis player in the world at the height of her career, and yet when you google her most of the images are of said outfit.

French Open, 1958- Karol Fageros is banned from competing at the upcoming Wimbledon tournament because of the gold lamé shorts she wore at the French Open, as many people claimed they were a distraction to her opponents and Wimbledon didn’t want to welcome any more risque outfits.Just four years before, she won the both the singles and doubles titles at the Canadian Championships.

Wimbledon, 1985- Anne White also came under fire for wearing a catsuit on the court, one that followed the ‘all white’ rules. However her opponent, Pam Shriver, claimed it was a distraction and had had a hand in Shriver losing the game. White reached the semi-finals in a number of opens, and won the singles title of Virginia Slims Arizona, however she is still most famous for that pearlescent catsuit.

Wimbledon, 2011- Bethanie Mattek-Sands came out to court in a (frankly) amazing white jacket designed by Alex Noble that was covered in real tennis balls and lined with white fringe. The coat had the officials worried, and she was given a warning before she even stepped onto the court, but took off the coat regardless as it was too heavy to play in. She’s an olympic gold medalist, and has won five Grand Slams, but the press know her as the “Lady Gaga of tennis”.

Crying Foul

This scrutiny seems to always fall hardest on the female athletes, and while it has been an issue throughout the sports world, tennis players seems to find themselves under the most criticism.
But why? Why are the discussions so often about what women are wearing, instead of the accomplishments these women have made? The message the 2018 French Open, and so many other decisions like it, sends it that it is someone else’s business to comment on and dictate what women wear. When really it should be the business of the person wearing the clothes, and theirs alone. Serena Williams, and so many other female tennis players in the past, were not wearing clothing that openly ridiculed the game. They were wearing uniforms that help them perform their best, excel in their field, and break barriers.

Love-Love

Let’s shift the focus. The next time you hear someone make a comment about what Serena Williams is wearing on the court, change the conversation by reminding them that she is the first tennis player ever to win 23 Grand Slam singles titles, and the second black women to win a Grand Slam when she was just 17. Gently let this person know that focusing on what this female athlete is wearing overshadows her amazing accomplishments.

Take this into your own life, too. If you play a sport and are ever criticized about what you are wearing, remember that what is important is how hard you work and that you are comfortable and safe while doing it.

And in general, the next time you hear anyone criticizing women on what they are wearing rather than focusing on their accomplishments, shift the conversation! This is one of the best ways to shine a spotlight on what is important, and to encourage the mindsets of people around you to change.

And of course, you can always take inspiration from Serena’s clapback – put on a tutu, go out there, and show the world what you’re made of!

By Olivia Latta

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Rocco says

This is really helpful, thanks.