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Maria, Venus, and Serena…what comes to mind when hearing those names? Athletic, powerful, and stylish. However, they were not the first fashionistas to appear on the tennis court. Female tennis players in the 1970s used their clothing to show off their style, but also their power. During the age of disco, second wave feminism, and the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association, fashion was used as a tool to show that women deserved equal rights on the court.
The Rules of The Game
A centuries old sport, tennis was controlled by strict gender rules and it wasn’t until 1884 when women gained the right to play competitively. Even after winning the right to play, the experience of women in competitive tennis was complicated. They competed in physically demanding matches, earned less, and had to wear more restrictive clothing than their male counterparts.
Similar to gymnastics and ice skating, females in tennis were expected to be slim and feminine. Alongside this, women were required to follow clothing guidelines. Up until the 1970s, tennis clothing had to be all white. Rules about wearing all white lasted well into the mid-twentieth century and are still in practice at Wimbledon.
This changed after the 1970s; colored clothing was now allowed in a number of competitions. Not straying from tradition, many players kept white as their base but incorporated colored bands or patterns onto their outfits. Instead of changing colors, some wore interesting details like sharp collars or intricate bottoms.
Another change in tennis dress was the element of sex. Beginning in Mod-era 1960s, tennis skirts began to rise above the knee. This intensified in the 70s, with skirts meeting at mid-thigh that revealed full bottoms during play. In 1976, Chris Evert embraced this trend by wearing frilly pink panties underneath her skirt while playing a match. Every move she made, her boudoir-like panties peaked out. This was a definite change from the long pleated skirts of the early 1900s players.
A New Era
More awareness to women in tennis was beginning to appear with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), an organization created by tennis player Billie Jean King. The creation of the WTA concurred with second wave feminism in the United States. This social movement embraced women’s sexuality and the right for equality in the workplace, among other things. Also occurring was the popularity of disco music. In order to dance to the fast paced music in crowded nightclubs, short hemlines and tight dresses became de rigueur. With all of these factors coming together in the early 70s, female tennis players discovered that clothing was a way to add power to their presence.
Take for example, Chris Evert. A tennis darling in the 1970s, Evert began her career in her teens and quickly became a tennis It girl. Her clothing choices reflected this, with thigh grazing dresses in graphic patterns and signature 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. Unlike Evert, King was known for her aggressive play. King balanced this with her appearance by wearing short white dresses with fashion accents like pointed collars, pleated skirts, and fun 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, prominent ophthalmologist, winner of a singles title in 1979, and a 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. Born a male and later transitioned a woman, Richards was outed after she won a chance to compete in the U.S. Open in 1976. Once the secret was revealed, she was seen as a threat with many claiming that her strength would be too overpowering against female competitors. Instead of hiding, Richards embraced her femininity. Always sporting gold hoop earrings and mini dresses, Richards added a mezuzah necklace to her wardrobe after noticing a large amount of players wearing crosses. Nearly forgotten today, Richards was one of the first transgendered persons to become a public figure in sports.
These three were a part of a small set of female tennis players who understand the importance of fashion. Beginning in long, floor grazing skirts to thigh-grazing miniskirts, the fashion of tennis is ever evolving. Today, Serena and Venus Williams have become well-known for their body conscious fashions. But before them, a young woman named Chris Evert flaunted her panties and changed the tennis world.