Tennis Anyone?

I’m a huge tennis fan, and this weekend the finals of the last Grand Slam tournament of 2011 will be going on in New York at the US Open. I’m always amazed at the athleticism and power of the top contenders, but I wonder how they would fare if someone turned back the clock 120 years and gave them the equipment and clothing of their predecessors.

Like most sports, the game of tennis evolved over several centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that the first lawn tennis club was established in England. The first tennis championship took place in 1877 at a lovely little place called Wimbledon. Just a few years later in 1881,  the United States National Lawn Tennis Association was formed, and the US National Men’s Singles Championship (later to become the US Open) was held in Newport, Rhode Island. 

The sport became a fashionable rage in the 1880’s and 90’s, especially among the middle classes, and soon men and women both were taking up racquets and installing private lawn tennis courts at their homes. However, women’s clothing of the time made few concessions to the sport. Men were able to play in loose-fitting trousers, shirt sleeves, and a bare head while women were still expected to wear dresses with high-neck bodices, floor-length skirts, layers of petticoats, hats, and yes. . . corsets. The restrictive clothing made it nearly impossible for a woman to bend over and retrieve a ball, so beautifully embroidered tennis aprons with large pockets became the style.

In the beginning, tennis was simply a recreational activity, much like croquet. The fun came in the gathering of friends. Players stood close to the net and simply patted the ball to each other. Yet competitive natures prevailed, and it soon became a sport for athletes. During this time of change, women began making strides in adapting their clothing to better accommodate the physical aspects of the game. Maud Watson became the first female champion at Wimbledon in 1884 and she shocked many with her agressive style of play and *gasp* her short skirts. They barely reached her ankles!

American MaySutton stunned spectators when she rolled up her sleeves during a match and bared her forearms.

However, it was Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen in the 1920’s who took women’s sportwear to a whole new level. Her calf-length cotton dresses were considered indecent since she wore neither corset nor petticoat. And instead of a hat, she wore a silk bandeau around her head to help keep her hair out of her eyes. But it was her grace and skill on the court that made her a sporting heroine and inspired women everywhere to give up the shakles of fashion to embrace functionality when it came to sport apparel.

Can you imagine trying to play tennis or any serious sport while trussed up in a corset? I don’t know how they did it. But if it weren’t for those early competive females like Maude Watson who started taking small revolutionary steps, the women’s movement might not have gained the momentum it did at the turn of the century.

Are any of you tennis fans? Want to strap on a corset and long skirt and join me for a reenactment match?


I’m shocked. Truly shocked.

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

19 thoughts on “Tennis Anyone?”

  1. Hi Karen! I’ll skip the corset, thank you very much! Fun post. Tennis isn’t my game, but I’m amazed by people who play it well…My sport these days is surfing . . . the internet 🙂

  2. My husband and I played in our early married days but that gradually faded.

    Oh, those flappers. How they changed things.

    I wonder about the flat brimmed hats and if they were “tennis hats” since most are the same.

    Such fun.

    I am with Vicki…I am a pro internet surfer too.

  3. Hey, Margaret. I played tennis at the junior varsity level for one year in high school. I was never very good, but I’ve been a fan ever since. Never played in a corset, though. LOL

  4. Hi, Julie.

    My husband and I played racquetball for several years before we had kids. It’s supposed to played more with the wrist, but I never got the hang of that. I still tried to play with a straight-arm tennis swing. Top spin doesn’t work as well in a racquetball court.

    One of my sons is interested in taking up tennis next year when he hits 7th grade. Maybe I can remember enough to keep up with him at least for a little while before he leaves his mom in the dust.

  5. Delightful post, Karen. I took a tennis class in college because this boy I liked played…
    Alas, I spent most of my time chasing the balls I couldn’t hit. I should know better than to try anything that requires eye-hand coordination.
    Have a great weekend everyone.

  6. I haven’t played since high school, Winnie. But now that my kids are getting older they want me to take them to the courts. Even making them do soft taps, we end up spending more time chasing the ball than actually playing. Not too fun when it’s 100 degrees.

  7. Hi, Elizabeth. I’d love to take some tennis lessons and try to remember how to play. And how fun that you gave it a try for the sake of a boy! That’s what it was originally designed for – social play to give young men and women a chance to socialize in a wholesome environment. Maybe that’s why they use the word “Love” in scoring. LOL

  8. Thanks for the insight into this topic.. I have not been a lovoer of tennis.. I watch it sometimes, but it does nothing for me. But I know there are scores of people out there who love it. Yourself included.
    We had a few tennis classes in school, but I did not have the right co-ordination for it..

  9. Hi, Kathleen. Thanks for your comment. Tennis is not for everyone. That’s sure true. It’s fun trying to imagine 19th century women in their corsets and long skirts trying to play the game, though. Maybe I’d have a half a chance of winning if my opponent was 19th century and I was 21st. 🙂

  10. Hi Karen, Awesome post! I can’t imagine wearing a corset for any reason. This must have been torture. I fooled around a little with a tennis racquet in high school (badly) and hubby played competitively in those days, but it didn’t survive into our adult years. I guess we’d rather watch golf. But I sure enjoyed learning about how our foremothers prevailed in yet another way! oxoxxo

  11. Hey, Tanya. I actually wore a corset for about 30 minutes during an historical presentation at a writer’s retreat. The presenter brought enough for everybody to try them. Sure made it easy to sit up straight! And as long as you didn’t lace it too tightly, it wasn’t that uncomfortable. But it definitely restricted movement. I can understand why they needed those tennis aprons!

  12. Hi Karen,

    Very interesting post today. I cannot imagine wearing a corset for any reason much less to play tennis. I took tennis lessons once on a clay court and I actually enjoyed myself. It’s a great way to stay in shape.

    Have a great Friday,


  13. Thanks for your comment, Cher! I’ve never played on clay. I’d love to try it sometime. Although it looks like it would be murder on your laundry. Watching the French Open, the players always have the red clay all over their socks and shoes. On theo ther hand, those controlled slides they can do on the clay look like a lot of fun. I’d probably end up with a big clay mark on my backside if I tired it, but it might be worth it. 🙂

  14. When I look at the photos and think of all the clothes those ladies wore and perspiration—UGH!
    Then I look at some of my family old photos of their bathing suits—-swimming in the Pacific in San Diego. I really have to laugh. All those clothes on. It’s a wonder any of them didn’t drown, just wading. It is also a wonder that when playing tennis the ladies didn’t faint from heat exhaustion. But we had to be covered—-at all times!!! The men were lucky they didn’t have to wear all that stuff.
    We have tennis courts here in town and lights. It’s too hot to play during the day. But perfect at night. I used to play. Now the grandkids play.

  15. Hi, Mary. You’re right about those bathing suits. I’ve often thought the same thing.

    And about the perspiration – One of the reasons Maud Watson wore solid white (inspiring the English tradition of “tennis whites”) was so that she could wear lightweight linen and not have her perspiration show. A lady was never supposed to sweat, after all. 😉

  16. Hi Karen,

    I actually never fell on the court but my instructor mostly had me working on the follow through. I liked the clay court because it had give to it, it wasn’t jarring to my ankles or knees. 🙂


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