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.