Sporting Style: Tennis Outfits in the Early-Twentieth Century

Tennis has always had strong associations with fashion. This link is most clearly demonstrated, argues Phyliss Tortura, in the Jean Paul Gaultier Autumn 2010 show in which the runway was made to look like a tennis court and much of the collection was inspired by sportswear. I recently visited the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Archive, which has a large collection of vintage postcards featuring famous tennis stars of the past. These postcards show the numerous and changing styles of female sporting dress that have adorned the tennis court.

Jean Paul Gaultier Runway Show, Autumn 2010

Jean Paul Gaultier Runway Show, Autumn 2010

The modern game of Lawn Tennis first emerged in the 1870s and female players in these early years usually wore their ordinary clothes, often a smart ‘tea dress’, in order to play. This would have included a corset, a skirt with a bustle and various other trimmings. While the decorations were pared down over the years to the classic Wimbledon white, corsets remained a regular feature in women’s tennis outfits. Right up until the late 1910s female tennis players engaged in this vigorous and strenuous sport whilst wearing this boned and laced garment which would restrict both their breathing and their freedom of movement.

Mrs McNaire, ca. 1910s

Mrs Satterthwaite, ca. 1910s

It took the glamorous and daring Suzanne Lenglen to challenge this norm, and she was met by great shock and outrage when she took her place on court at the 1919 Wimbledon tournament wearing no corset. She also made a radical change to the length of skirts for women in tennis, with the skirt of her 1919 outfit stopping at her calves. This modification soon caught on, with hemlines gradually rising across the following decades, giving female players a greater capacity for movement in the game. Lenglen’s signature headscarf also caught on, adding a sense of glamour and chic to the sport.

Suzanne Lenglen, ca. 1920s

Senorita De Alvarez, ca. 1920s

Many players accessorised their outfits, and spectators at the interwar Wimbledon tournaments would have seen everything from geometric cardigans to fur coats. Other modifications in women’s tennis dress were gradually made over this period, eventually coming to value practicality over the Victorian demands of modesty. Stockings were worn under tennis dresses until 1932, when they were finally discarded.

Miss G. Sterry, ca. 1920s

Mrs Satterthwaite, ca. 1930s

Women’s tennis dress changed dramatically in the early twentieth century, creating a more practical and comfortable costume, suitable for the sporting prowess of the players. However, a touch of glamour and style still didn’t go amiss.

Tennis Photos Courtesy of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Archive

References

Phyliss G. Tortura, Dress Fashion & Technology: From Pre-History to the Present (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

Ted Tinling, The Story of Women’s Tennis Fashion (Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, 1977)

Valerie Warren, Tennis Fashions: Over 125 Years of Costume Change (Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, 1993).