A history of tennis fashion and skirts: Why are they still such a must?

On the first night of the U.S. Open, Serena Williams took the high road and responded to her catsuit ban by wearing a fabulous black tutu.

The French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, recently said Williams’s Wakanda-inspired catsuit (her words) “will no longer be accepted,” during an interview with Tennis magazine. “One must respect the game and the place.”

Discussion soon erupted on what type of tennis attire is considered appropriate or not. Tennis legend Billie Jean King chimed in on the conversation, slamming French Open officials for the ban. “The policing of women’s bodies must end,” she wrote in a Twitter post. “The ‘respect’ that’s needed is for the exceptional talent ⁦@serenawilliams⁩ brings to the game. Criticizing what she wears to work is where the true disrespect lies.” 

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History of tennis skirts
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History of tennis skirts

During the 1900s, long-sleeved blouses and long maxi skirts were the style of choice for tennis players. “Tennis started out in the Victorian era in England as a lawn sport for the aristocracy,” said Ben Rothenberg, author of The Stylish Life: Tennis, on CNN.

Modest tennis fashion dominated the era, as seen below on a tennis player who wears a pussy-bow blouse with ballooned sleeves, long white skirt, and white sneakers, all covering up nearly every inch of skin.

The 1920s saw a loosening of dress codes with the introduction of sleeveless blouses and higher hemlines. Pleats also became a popular stylistic choice.

Here, Olympic and Wimbledon champion Suzanne Lenglen wears a knee-length pleated skirt. She accessorizes the look with a soft head wrap.

In the 1930s, skirts and hemlines continued to hit the knee, but pantyhose was no longer required in the dress code. Women began to wear polo shorts or another alternative: drop waist dresses or those cinched at the waist.
By the 1940s, women embraced shorts for greater mobility on the court, but they still kept them classy (of course). Here, American tennis player Pauline Betz wears a short-sleeve blouse tucked into her high-waisted, soft pleated shorts and a belt to tie it all together.

In the 1950s, when Marilyn Monroe’s famous windy skirt photograph became an iconic moment in film history, tennis players like Lea Percioli bent the rules of traditional tennis fashion.

Her style on the court was often featured in the press, where Percioli embraced short skirts and dresses, even if that meant showing more than she planned on.

By the 1960s, mod fashion was front and center. Women took a more playful approach, embracing sleeveless tops and shirts with stripes, gingham, and other graphic prints like those seen here on  Virginia Wade and Lorna Greveille-Collins of England and Marlys Burel of France.
The 1970s was all about psychedelia. Colorful prints and patterns dominated the fashion scene, and this influenced tennis fashions, too, as exhibited here in a look worn by Martina Navratilova.
The 1980s witnessed a controversial look by American player Anne White, who wore a white spandex catsuit by designer Ted Tinling during her first match at Wimbledon. Little did she know that Serena Williams would sport a similar catsuit at the French Open more than 30 years later.
The 1990s were all about bright colors, loud prints, and plenty of scrunchies on the tennis court. German champ Steffi Graf wears a colorful floral skirt with a matching polo shirt and white scrunchie in her hair at the French Open in 1995.

By the 2000s, brands like Adidas and Nike were emblazoned on tennis outfits of the top athletes. Here, Russian player Anna Kournikova wears head-to-toe Adidas.

In 2008, tennis champions Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova pushed the envelope of traditional tennis attire at Wimbledon, a bastion of traditionalism. Williams opted for a white trench coat, while Sharapova wore a tuxedo-style pleated blouse tucked into white shorts — and both looks were designed by Nike.
Unfortunately, Sharapova wasn’t able to wear her new look for too long, as she was eliminated in the second round. Her winning opponent, Alla Kudryavtseva, had this to say of Sharapova’s look, “I was pleased to beat her: I didn’t like her outfit.”
In 2010, tennis fashion took a more scandalous approach when Venus Williams wore a lingerie-like, sheer black-lace dress with red piping, designed by Williams for her fashion label, EleVen.

In 2011, Venus Williams continued her fashion stride, sporting atypical tennis attire.

At the Australian Open, Williams sported a yellow woven, cut-out tank with a splash of color.

In 2015, Maria Sharapova traded in her 2008 tuxedo shirt for a classic stripe shirt over what would become known as the “Nike Maria Paris dress,” an adjoining white racerback tank top connected to a pleated navy mini.
In 2016, Serena Williams sported a classic all-white look in deference to Wimbledon’s all-white policy.
In 2017, 24-year-old Sloane Stephens won the U.S. Open women’s singles competition wearing a sherbet-orange tank dress and matching visor and shoes by Under Armour.

In 2018, Serena Williams debuts her Wakanda-inspired black catsuit at the French Open, which was designed to help prevent blood clots, a health issue she has been prone to.

The catsuit came under scrutiny by French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, who recently said the style would “no longer be accepted.”

In the wake of this controversy, Williams debuted a brand-new look for the U.S. Open on August 27: a black tutu skirt, made by Off-White and Nike.

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Williams didn’t let the controversy deter her from winning her first U.S. Open match against Magda Linette on Monday. For the occasion, she paired her black tutu with an edgy leather moto jacket, asymmetrical leotard, and white sneakers. The look is part of the new “Queen” collection inspired by the tennis star and made in a collaboration between Virgil Abloh, the acclaimed Off-White designer, and Nike.

With this look, the 23-time Grand Slam winner continues her stride as a statement-making fashion star on the tennis court, and, as history shows — she’s not alone. Anne White was the first player to wear a catsuit on the court, which caused quite a stir at Wimbledon in 1985. Unconventional tennis fashions have been worn by male players too. A notable example is Andre Agassi, who wore denim shorts to the U.S. Open in 1988. Serena Williams longtime rival, Maria Sharapova, explored creative fashion as well, wearing a tuxedo-style blouse at Wimbledon in 2008.

Despite these fashion-making moments, the iconic tennis skirt continues to be the key sartorial piece in the game. Above, a look at how tennis fashion has changed over the years and why the skirt endures.

See more of Serena Williams' tennis looks below

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Serena Williams' best tennis outfits
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Serena Williams' best tennis outfits
NEW YORK, USA - AUGUST 29: Serena Williams of USA competes against Carina Witthoeft of Germany (not seen) during US Open 2018 tournament in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, United States on August 29, 2018. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 15: Serena Williams of the USA in her first round match against Maria Tatjana of Germany on day two of the 2019 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 15, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - AUGUST 29: Serena Williams of USA competes against Carina Witthoeft of Germany (not seen) during US Open 2018 tournament in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, United States on August 29, 2018. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - AUGUST 29: Serena Williams of USA competes against Carina Witthoeft of Germany (not seen) during US Open 2018 tournament in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, United States on August 29, 2018. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 29: Serena Williams of the United States serves against Carina Witthoeft of Germany during her women's singles second round match on Day Three of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 29, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Jaime Lawson/Getty Images for USTA)
FLUSHING MEADOW, NY - AUGUST 27: SERENA WILLIAMS (USA) day one of the 2018 US Open on August 27, 2018 at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, NY. (Photo by Chaz Niell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
FLUSHING MEADOW, NY - AUGUST 27: SERENA WILLIAMS (USA) day one of the 2018 US Open on August 27, 2018 at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, NY. (Photo by Chaz Niell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 27: Serena Williams of the United States returns the ball during her women's singles first round match against Magda Linette of Poland on Day One of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 27, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Aug 27, 2018; New York, NY, USA; Serena Williams of the USA reacts after beating Magda Linette of Poland in a first round match on day one of the 2018 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 27: Serena Williams of the United States in action against Magda Linette of Poland in the first round of the US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre on August 27, 2018 in New York City, United States. (Photo by TPN/Getty Images)'n'n
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 25: Serena Williams attends the 2018 Arthur Ashe Kids' Day at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 25, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
MASON, OH - AUGUST 14: Serena Williams of the United States serves to Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic during Day 4 of the Western and Southern Open at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 14, 2018 in Mason, Ohio. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE May 30. French Open Tennis Tournament - Day Four. Serena Williams of the United States in action along with her sister Venus Williams of the United States during their match against Shuko Aoyama of Japan and Miyu Kato of Japan in the Women's Doubles Competition at the 2018 French Open Tennis Tournament at Roland Garros on May 30th 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 05: Serena Williams of the United States (C) celebrates during the match against Yaroslava Shvedova (not seen) of Kazakhstan within fourth round Women's Singles match on Day Eight of the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2016 in New York City, NY, United States. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 12: (AUSTRALASIA & EUROPE OUT) American tennis player Serena Williams poses during a photo shoot wearing the outfit she will wear in the upcoming 2012 Australian Open Tennis Championships in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. (Photo by Fiona Hamilton/Newspix/Getty Images)
(AUSTRALIA OUT) Australian Open 2007. American Serena Williams looks down at her tennis dress during her semi-final victory over the Czech Republic's Nicole Vaidisova, won in straight sets 7-6, 6-4, during the Women's Singles competition at the 2007 Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park. Williams, unseeded, will now advance to her third Australian Open final, 25 January 2007. THE AGE SPORT Picture by VIKI LASCARIS (Photo by Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
FLUSHING MEADOWS, UNITED STATES: Number 3 seed Serena Williams warms up in her tennis outfit in her match against Lindsey-Lee Waters of the United States at the 2004 US Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, New York 01 September 2004. AFP PHOTO Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 29: Serena Williams of the USA celebrates a point in her match against Silvia Soler-Espinosa of Spain during day three of the China Open at the China National Tennis Center on September 29, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07: Serena Williams of the United States returns a shot against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during their women's singles final match on Day fourteen of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Serena Williams, USA, in action against Caroline Wozniacki, Denmark, in the Women's Singles Final during the US Open Tennis Tournament, Flushing, New York, USA. 7th September 2014. Photo Tim Clayton (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
KEY BISCAYNE, FL - MARCH 21: Serena Williams plays a match against Flavia Pennetta of Italy during Day 4 of the Sony Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 21, 2013 in Key Biscayne, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Serena Williams of the United States celebrates after defeating Ekaterina Makarova of Russia during their women's singles semifinal match on Day Twelve of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. Williams defeated Makarova in two sets 6-1, 6-3. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Serena Williams of the United States celebrates after defeating Ekaterina Makarova of Russia during their women's singles semifinal match on Day Twelve of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. Williams defeated Makarova in two sets 6-1, 6-3. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Serena Williams of the US celebrates her victory over Ekaterina Makarova of Russia during their US Open 2014 women's singles semifinals match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Center September 5, 2014 in New York. Williams won 6-1 6-3. AFP PHOTO/Timothy A. Clary (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
2018 US Open Tennis Tournament- Day Seven. Serena Williams of the United States in action against Kaia Kanepi of Estonia in the Women's Singles round four match on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the 2018 US Open Tennis Tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 2nd, 2018 in Flushing, Queens, New York City. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
2018 US Open Tennis Tournament- Day Seven. Serena Williams of the United States in action against Kaia Kanepi of Estonia in the Women's Singles round four match on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the 2018 US Open Tennis Tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 2nd, 2018 in Flushing, Queens, New York City. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 3: Serena Williams of USA during Day 8 of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros stadium on June 3, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 03: Venus Williams (R) and Serena Williams (L) of the USA in action against Andreja Klepac (not seen) of Slovenia and Maria Jose Martinez (not seen) Sanchez of Spain during during their ladies doubles fourth round match at the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris, France on June 03, 2018. (Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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