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The relationship between fashion and tennis seems like a relatively new phenomenon. However, this duo has been working together for decades. One significant moment occurred in the 1970s when a wave of feminism infused with the game. What resulted was a fashion moment that gave female players the opportunity to showcase their personal style.
The Rules of The Game
Although a centuries-old game, women gained the right to play competitively in 1884. Their experience in competitive tennis was still complicated even after winning the right to play. While they competed in physically demanding matches, women earned less and were required to cover their bodies in long sleeves and skirts. And if that wasn’t enough, they were expected to maintain a slim and feminine shape.
By the 1970s, things were changing for women in tennis. In 1973 tennis player Billie Jean King created the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), an organization that provides touring opportunities and advocating for females in the sport. Some of the early accomplishments of the organization include the creation of a tour for female players and demanding better pay that is comparable to what their male peers receive. The beginnings of the WTA occurred with second-wave feminism in the United States, which embraced women’s sexuality and equality. Also influencing society was disco music. Fashion was taken over with short hemlines and tight clothing, which was often worn by dancers when grooving to fast-paced music in crowded nightclubs.
Female tennis dress reflected America’s disco culture by revealing more skin than ever. It began during the Mod-era 1960s when tennis skirts rose above the knee. Lengths intensified in the 70s, with skirts meeting at mid-thigh, which revealed full bottoms during play. In 1976, player Chris Evert embraced this trend by wearing frilly pink bottoms underneath her skirt while playing a match. Every move she made, a sliver of ruffles peaked out. This was quite a change from the long pleated skirts of their early 20th century sisters.
Chris Evert was a tennis darling in the 1970s. She began her career in her teens and quickly became an ‘It Girl’ in the tennis world. Her clothing choices reflected this role with thigh-grazing dresses in graphic patterns and a youthful ponytail parted in the middle. As she won and became a powerful force on the court, she wore custom-made dresses by fashion designer Ted Tinling. Tinling was an English fashion designer who dressed some of the most popular female players in tennis. To wear a custom designed Tinling meant that a player was the best of the best.
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Another Tinling wearer was Billie Jean King. King famously wore a Tinling piece for her ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match with Bobby Riggs. King was known for her aggressive play, which required practicality in her sportswear. However, she accented her short white dresses with fashion touches like pointed collars, pleated skirts, and graphic patterns.
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Although older than many of her tennis competitors, amateur player Renée Richards had the “tennis look.” Tall with high cheekbones and gorgeous chestnut brown hair, Richards had beauty and excellent athletic skills. As a Yale graduate, a prominent ophthalmologist, winner of a singles title, and coach to Czech tennis player Martina Navratilova, one would think Richards had it all.
However, Richards became one of the most controversial figures in 1970s tennis because she was trans. Nearly forgotten today, Richards was one of the first transgendered persons to become a public figure in sports. She was outed after she won a chance to compete in the U.S. Open in 1976 and once the secret was revealed, Richards was seen as a threat. Many claimed that her strength would be too overpowering against female competitors. Instead of hiding, Richards embraced and accentuated her appearance. She always sported gold hoop earrings, mini dresses, and after noticing players wearing crosses, Richards added a mezuzah necklace to her wardrobe to display her Jewish faith.
Despite these three women having different experiences on the court, they all wore apparel that showcased a sense of style. They are a prime example of how a sports player can use stylistic cues to display their personal taste or objection to unfair sexist rules. This tradition of fashionable apparel in tennis continues today, especially with the outfits of Venus and Serena Williams. Instead of it being a distraction, which some officials claim, this form of clothing gives a sense of personality and insight. Some would say it is the perfect match.