To some, fashion is the very expression of self, an intriguing part of life with a defining essence all its own: a freeform, feel-good celebration of style and beauty.
You go, girl!
To others, it’s a who-cares afterthought or, worse yet, a kind of unvarnished vanity. Clothes don’t make the man, killer stilettos don’t make the gal. Why be a slave to fashion? But whether you’re a snazzy which-way-to-the-catwalk IT girl or a grunge-is-good, blast-and-sweat kind of guy, you have to admit that no other sport so seamlessly combines fashion and athletic grace.
Of course, this is hardly breaking news. Back in 1528, tennis’ first popularizer —King Henry VIII — found a moment between beheading his assorted wives to have his tailor come up with his very own designer britches and stockings for his weekend game at Hampton Court. No sweat. And when the modern game emerged at posh tea parties at 19th century Victorian estates, the fashion imperative was simple: show no skin, reveal no sweat. After all, fashion historian Ted Tinling noted, “For two thousand years, fashion had not even shown the calf of a woman’s leg.”
Thus, high society ladies labored to play in voluminous bustles, petticoats, corsets, camisoles and full-length, hide-‘dem-ankles skirts. Generations of players suffered for their beauty.
But the history of style is nothing if not a curious blend of imposing fashion rules, rowdy rebels pushing back mightily and playful spirits trying to create.
Enter Mary Sutton, who had the temerity to roll up her sleeves in 1904, and the great fashion pioneer Suzanne Lenglen, who was, according to fellow player Evelyn Dewhurst, “facially frighteningly ugly, but her magnetism was so compelling one forgot this.”
Beyond this, according to Tinling, she had a “glamour consciousness and panache…a special joy and abandon…[and] her ballet leaps and flowing movements…suggested complete sexual fulfillment.”
So in the 1920s, as women gained the vote and drank in speakeasys, Lenglen chugged brandy on changeovers, kept queens waiting and dared to play in sleeveless tops, knee-length pleated skirts and “revealing little frocks.” She not only delighted the crooks, cronies and fans who followed tennis, but according to Tinling, “the hypnotic spell cast by her enormous popularity beckoned thousands of previously timid women toward the new liberties they had longed for.”
But the game’s puritanical rulers were in shock and tennis would need decades to recover. As the roaring ’20s were subsumed by years of depression and war, “Little Miss Poker Face” — Californian Helen Wills Moody — sported a ho hum/no nonsense classic look along with her signature white visor, an accessory that remains in the game to this day. Her rival, Helen Jacobs, dared to play in shorts and Alice Marble offered an athletic beauty. But unless you were a student of whiter shades of pale, women’s fashion hardly sparkled, while all the men’s game offered was a certain privileged Great Gatsby universe of Bill Tildenesque preppy cable knits and V-neck sweaters, which begged the eternal question — “Where’s my pipe?”
But all that feel-good preppy safety would be challenged once the guns of war were silenced and Tinling, an elite rebel-in-waiting, turned his ample fashion guns on the tennis establishment he knew so well.
Teaming with journeywoman Gussie Moran in 1949, he designed lacey bloomers, which the Los Angelian wore on Wimbledon’s hallowed courts. Mouths dropped and so did photographers, who lay on their bellies to snap pics of Georgeous Gussie’s shocking undergarments. Stunned officials snapped at Tinling, “How could you do something so tasteless having been with us for so long…Frills are unsuitable for Wimbledon…You have put sin and vulgarity into tennis.” Front-page headlines screamed “Wimbledon Outlaws Galloping Godivas,” while European observers complained that British Puritanism had gone too far, and that everyone should thank Tinling “for changing the dreary scene.” Tinling lost his Wimby job and was banned for decades, but Moran parlayed her Janet Jackson-like 15 minutes into a career as a kind of Annie Oakley who traveled the world as the warm-up act for pro exhibitions.
Meanwhile, back in the risk-averse world of mainstream tennis, no one followed in Moran’s bold footsteps. This was hardly a problem for Queen Elizabeth, who said, “I had no idea tennis girls could look so pretty.” So another bland period of fashion quietude descended for two long decades until Open tennis and the tennis boom of the ’70s swept the sport. Overnight, tennis became just like the movie Pleasantville, in which a sleepy suburban town — stuck in the ’50s in black and white — is abruptly awakened to a dazzling world of bright colors. Similarly, in tennis, all-white attire was, at last, not always required. Pastels, then bright shades and even colored dresses were grudgingly accepted. Though sometimes jarring, fashion creativity blossomed. When Bud Collins, wearing glaring canary-yellow trousers, asked Pam Shriver for an interview, she said, “First, turn off those pants!” And when Martina Navratilova appeared in a flowered dress, promoter Marilyn Fernberger quipped, “So we’re into shower curtains now.”
Tennis soon got into a Swedish heartthrob with dreamy eyes and long flowing blonde locks. Bjorn Borg‘s headband, his striped creamy white Fila shirt and short shorts became an instant classic and were quickly replicated in a thousand clubs. Crocodiles and laurel wreaths suddenly became passe as stylish Italian design groups (Fila, ellesse and Tacchini) grabbed huge portions of a burgeoning, pricey market. But before you could yell “Swoosh!” fashion was driven by Nike and its imaginative ads and charismatic athletes John McEnroe and Andre Agassi. Daring denim and neon lime designs joyfully tweaked the reeling establishment. And, when Andre showed up in a pink hot-lava outfit to play Roland Garros, the stodgy boss of French tennis threatened to retaliate by imposing a fashion code. Agassi laughed and called the guy a bozo as sales of his outfit zoomed in Omaha. Swoosh!
Just a decade after Borgmania, tennis was transformed by another Northern European with flowing blonde hair. Muscovite Anna Kournikova was never destined to win a tournament, but the most successful loser in tennis history won a bundle of hearts. The first superstar of the Internet era (who attracted more traffic then Michael Jordan or pre-scandal Tiger Woods), she not only opened the door for a cadre of Russian girls, she took the concept of tennis gal as a marketing engine and individual brand to stratospheric heights, as she peddled everything from watches and phones to bras and brokers. And why not? Frank Deford observed that Kournikova looked “like a trim sloop, skimming across the surface, her long signature pigtail flying about like a torn spinnaker in the wind. Her lines are perfect.”
Of course, not everyone bought into the mystique. ” Kournikova is unapproachable: what should I be envious of?” asked Justine Henin.” Her body? Her income? Her boyfriends? No thanks. I wouldn’t exchange anything with her…I don’t need a boyfriend every week. I am serious and try to keep certain principles, to be generous and loyal and love.”
Then there was another Russian, the taller more talented Maria Sharapova, who, as she swept on stage, made it clear that times were changing. “If people want me to be a tennis babe, I’m sorry. I’m not going to be one,” she announced. “People forget that Kournikova isn’t in the picture anymore. It’s Maria time now.”
The six-foot, strong-willed Siberian blonde with a penchant for Hollywood took the Kournikova model (central casting good looks, snazzy clothes, plenty of ‘tude and fast-lane lifestyle) and ran with it, lifting individual branding to even greater heights. From the get-go, Maria got the drill. Just as the teen wonder won Wimbledon when she was just 17, she immediately dialed her mom on her cell phone from Centre Court. Skeptics wondered whether the call was more about maternal love or future endorsements. But, her agent was clear, stating that, in a few years, Maria’s name “will be a brand as universally recognized as Calvin Klein and Rolex.” So there’s Maria, not on dozens of magazine covers, but hundreds. There’s Maria in a stunning Audry Hepburn-inspired black frock. There’s Maria in New York in a sleek red number ordained with 600 Swarovski crystals. There’s Maria at trendy midtown parties or at a GQ fashion shoot on a Turkish beach, where, with a hint of sun splashed entitlement, she reassures us, “As long as there is good food, good people and good clothes on the set, I’m all good. It’s all easy.” And now here’s Maria, despite not having won a single match in the biggest three tournaments of the year, with a brand new Nike contract worth a cool $70 million. Cha-Ching.
Of course, Maria is merely the leader of the pack. Jelena Jankovic is a stylish clotheshorse. Ana Ivanovic, arguably the most beautiful No. 1 ever, rarely hesitates to strike a revealing pose. And, of course, there’s Serena Williams, who also has a proclivity for disrobing and shocked us with her singular black catsuit (which Chris Clarey said was “clingier than a preschooler on the first day of school”). Williams clearly adores award shows, reality shows — well, anything showy. After all, this is Ms. Serena, who once deconstructed her resume, explaining that she was “an actress, model and athlete, and I’d put athlete third on the list.” Serena added that her goal was “to try to build a successful fashion house like Armani or Versace.” Alas, her fashion company — Aneres — has not created all that many waves, but sister Venus‘ fashion brand — EleVen — with its edgy skin tone designs which suggest nudity have drawn gasps from Melbourne to Manhattan.
So here we are ladies and gentleman in our brave new retro/futurist fashion world in which reporters speak of amber, apricot and fuchsia pallets, girlie dresses, frilly skirts, flirty details, pleated fronts and daring asymmetry. Headlines wonder “Was Alona Bondarenko‘s Fruity Dress Not Quite Ripe?” while critics ask such burning questions as whether Daniela Hantuchova is stuck in the ’70s or whether Nadia Petrova looked like a orange creamsicle at Indian Wells.
In a world where mascara matters and accessories rule, Wimbledon umps replaced their pea-green unies with stylish purple-and-cream F. Scott Fitzgerald outfits and even sneakers-and-jeans guys embrace the ever-changing fashion game as pirate pants/clam diggers, broad bandanas, pajama wear, gold trim and many a monogram stir debate. Reflecting on all those macho muscle shirts that are now on display, Jon Wertheim claimed that “only the most taste-deprived, knuckle-dragging troglodytes don’t know that sleeveless shirts are the height of fashion.” And what of the ever-immaculate Roger Federer, the leader in fashion matters and everything else in men’s tennis? True, when he donned his crème Wimbledon jacket, critics contended that he looked like a cruise ship steward. Still, the metro hip gent tells us it’s important to know what’s in and what’s out and to find out you have to go out shopping far more than once.
It’s no accident that Fed pals around with Vogue wonder-editor Anna Wintour and, even when he’s totally casual, he seems flawless and fine.
The triumph of fashion and glitz in tennis is so pervasive that it has prompted a hefty push back. After beating Sharapova, Alla Kudryavtseva said, “It was very pleasant to beat Maria. I don’t like her outfit…It’s a little bit much of everything.”
Dominik Hrbaty‘s anti-fashion statement featured a pink-on-black shirt that was full of peek-a-boo holes, prompting Lleyton Hewitt to confide, “I just couldn’t lose to a bloke wearing a shirt like that.”
Bethanie Mattek, the fighting fashionista, has made a career of sporting skimpy, more-than-outrageous outfits ranging from leopard skin atrocities to a dime-store-cowgirl-meets-soccer-player outfit, which was deemed “the fashion crime of the century.”
But the train is out of the station. There is no bucking reality. Breakfast at Wimbledon has merged with Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The stars of the green courts are now mainstays on the red carpet. And whether we’re talking catsuits or catwalks, one thing is clear: tennis and fashion are attached at the hip. Fashion moguls sit courtside and tennis stars are in the front row at runway shows. A while ago, Sony Ericsson exec Dee Dutta moaned that tennis had lost its way and had become “all about backhands and forehands,” when after all tennis is “all about being hip and cool.” But now things have changed faster than a Sharapova fashion statement. Promoters don’t hesitate to tell us that their tournaments are not “just about tennis. It’s about retail, it’s about entertainment…it’s about promoting the total consumer experience.” These days, fashionistas reign in a glam ‘n glitzy game where the prevailing sensibility is simple. Just do it. Impossible is nothing.