tennis skirt is so much more than an Instagram trend

“I was daydreaming about my little tiny universe of tennis, and I thought to myself: ‘Everybody’s wearing white shoes, white socks, white clothes, playing with white balls, everybody who plays is white. Where is everybody else?’” These are the words of activist and sports star Billie Jean King, reflecting on her 12-year-old perspective on the world of tennis, during a Guardian interview in 2017.

tennis

At 13, a teenage King would watch Althea Gibson, the first black player to win Wimbledon and the French and US Open, dominate both the court and the typically waspy uniform that remains one of the most rigidly conservative kits in modern sport.

The Wimbledon Tennis Championships, which were due to start this month, have maintained consistently strict regulations surrounding players’ dress codes since the tournament’s inception in 1877, its most famous wardrobe decree being those obligatory tennis whites. Not cream, not off-white, but white—right down to the player’s underwear and shoes—a rule originally born out of the Victorians’ extreme social phobia of being seen to perspire. Yes, perspire. The official rules even go as far as stipulating that ‘A single trim of colour around the neckline and around the cuff of the sleeves is acceptable but must be no wider than one centimetre (10mm).’ I mean, I don’t know when the last time you measured your neckline was, but… sure.

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In 2017, Venus Williams reportedly ran into trouble with the All England Lawn Tennis Club for the fuchsia bra straps that peeped ever-so-slightly out from under her white tennis vest, a ‘slip’ that was allegedly ‘fixed’ during a wet weather break (something that’s also particularly unique to the British summertime tennis tournament).

Against this backdrop, perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that conventional tennis whites have resurfaced for summer 2020, appropriated by a generation of younger thought leaders. Model Imani Randolph and photographer Bella Newman are among the progressive vanguard wearing the tennis dress and pleated tennis skirt—a now-viral fashion mood that’s rapidly democratising the style associated with a sport that once made exclusion itself an invisible and controlling opponent (refreshingly forthright Space Force actress Diana Silvers is a die-hard tennis enthusiast).

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Today, off the court (and on the ’gram), those once eyebrow-raising hemlines are proudly hiked high. Prim, pleated tennis skirts are partnered with cropped cardigans and non-regulation 2000s mules hunted down on Depop. Plus, the humble cotton tennis dress has become something of a hero in an era when pulling on anything involving a zipper is a stretch too far—enter a devoted social media fan base, keen to take up the casualwear ‘advantage’ (sorry). But amid the warm-weather comfort dressing and the satisfying starched pleats that fit seamlessly into any aesthetically pleasing Instagram grid, credit needs to be paid to the tennis heroines who lend the sport’s restrictive uniform its quietly powerful meaning.

From Althea Gibson to Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf and Venus and Serena Williams, here’s your recap of the originals who inspired summer 2020’s favourite fashion look.