The origins of tennis can be traced all the way back to a 12th century French handball game called Jeu de Paume, also known as “Court Tennis”. Things moved at a snail’s pace from the onset—it took another four hundred years or so before the racquet was invented. Another three hundred years or so later, Wimbledon was born, in 1877, and from there tennis—and tennis fashion—began to grow exponentially.
Before there were eye-popping, street-inspired tennis kits, equipped with the latest technologies to enhance mobility and wick away perspiration, there were crisp, well-appointed whites that gave the sport its opulent aura. Read on to find out about the origins of the classic whites, where they have taken us, and where we might be headed.
Whites from the beginning
Tennis was a social sport from the onset, and that meant that looking sharp mattered. Unsightly perspiration rings, considered a faux pas then just as they are now, simply wouldn’t do, so it was a no-brainer for Wimbledon to introduce an all-white dress code for all participants in 1890. Famously, the code remains in effect today (Wimbledon even maintain limits on logo sizes, color pops and advertisements on players’ clothing). But sweat stains weren’t the only factor influencing tennis fashion. Socioeconomics had their say as well.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, white represented the color of summer leisure for wealthy Americans, as well as the English and other Europeans. White was a symbol of status, power and purity. Naturally, the middle class, as it began to acquire the means, was eager to get on trend. As the reach of tennis expanded over time, so did the undeniable allure of sporting crisp whites while playing the game.
The origins of tennis fashion
Tennis was a sociable endeavor, played by the wealthy, and often it performed as a hybrid, combining physical activity with leisure and, perhaps more important, matchmaking. Flirtatiousness and fashion went hand-in-hand at the dawn of the sport, and oftentimes tennis outfits would feature looks that were impractical from an athletic perspective but stylishly effective in the art of cajoling.
Tennis in the Bahamas, 1957 (Slim Aarons)
To the detriment of their ability to do the splits or grind out baseline points, men wore flannel or wool trousers (shorts weren’t worn at a major men’s international competition until 1932 - thank you, Bunny Austin), sweaters and blazers. They donned impractical hats, and generally tended to favor form over function.
René Lacoste: The croc who rocked tennis fashion
In the 1920’s René Lacoste, a world-class player in his own right, but also one of the sports’ grandest visionaries, took it upon himself to develop the tennis polo. A lightweight, breathable cotton t-shirt with a collar, Lacoste’s polo was born of a necessity. Tennis attire in the 1920s was bulky, and the shirts of the time were basically long-sleeved, button-up saunas. Imagine playing three sets in a heavy cotton oxford! Gone was the tyranny of the restrictive long-sleeved shirt, with baggy sleeves that interfered with movement. Also gone: Those lovely cable knit V-neck sweaters, but they were still a great choice for keeping warm while sauntering to and from the courts.
René Lacoste at Roland-Garros, 1932
Lacoste’s polos featured a thick collar that could be turned up to shield the back of the neck from the sun, as well as a long tail that allowed for easy tucking. They weren’t just a hit with tennis players. Polo players (who Lacoste originally took inspiration from) took a liking to them, and in time, fashionable citizens of the globe chose the polo shirt for leisure wear.
Until 1950, the famous Lacoste L.12.12 polo (given its name because it took 12 prototypes until the company settled on the final version) was only available in white. The Lacoste polo only became available in color in the United States in 1952.
Fred Perry continues the evolution
When the first Fred Perry clothing line appeared in 1952, tennis players and the general public were well aware of the allure of the polo. They had seen two decades of the evolution of the look, but Perry’s decorative stitched-on laurel wreath would be the magic ingredient that sparked the brand’s rise. Although it was originally marketed as solely for tennis, it wouldn’t be long before Fred Perry captured the public’s imagination and became linked with various subcultures, namely the Mods of the 1950s, who took a liking to buttoning their top button and wearing the sleekly fitting shirts with suspenders and boots. Punks, skinheads, preps, football hooligans and Brit Poppers have all played a role in making the Fred Perry polo an indispensable part of men’s fashion for decades.
This phenomenon, of tennis fashion giving to the world and the world giving back to tennis fashion, was in its early days at this point. But it wouldn’t be long before the sport would increase in popularity and the relationship would correlate further.
Colors starts to pop in the 70s
In the 1970’s self-expression became more important to athletes, and to fashion consumers in general, as European brands like Fila, Ellesse, Sergio Tacchini and Diadora stepped in to jazz up the landscape and add colorful accents to the all-white motif. Footwear and accessories like wristbands (invented by Fred Perry but now thoroughly evolved) and headbands became a popular vehicle for attention-grabbing colors.
Bjorn Borg in his tri-colored headband and open collar white polo with pinstripes, his blond hair cascading down below his shoulders, introduced a new ethos. Elements of bold, chic and stylish were supplanting the pop palette onto sportswear. The fabrics are lightweight and form-fitting, but the style is a break from the polos of the past. Flashy and flamboyant is the perfect approach in an age where professional athletes are beginning to transcend the world of sports and enter the realm of pop iconography.
International players change tennis fashion with each generation in a truly global sport
The golden era of men’s tennis in the 1970’s was characterized in many ways by the god-like status of Bjorn Borg. Not only was he a sex symbol who was surrounded by screaming women whenever he made an appearance in public, he was also one of the most dominant men to ever pick up a racquet. Borg was the original King of Clay. And a king of grass as well!
“Borg basically applied disco style to tennis, which at the time was a stuffy kind of sport, so it was all quite radical,” said Tom Guinness, a British-born stylist.
Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe at the Wimbledon singles final, 1981
Borg didn’t just influence the sport, he influenced the marketing of the sport. But he wasn’t the only one that moved the needle. A published poet, who also wrote screenplays and dabbled in philosophy, Vilas elevated the Ellesse brand as he dominated the sport in the 70s. He helped popularize the zip-up track suits that remain a staple today, and took short shorts to new heights (assist to his ginormous, chiseled thighs). A quiet competitor on the court, Vilas used style to express his personality. He was a bold, creative renaissance man. Think striped knee-high socks, belted shorts, daring color combos and abstract block patterns.
In the late 2000s the two-headed monster of Federer and Nadal took the torch and they have run with it ever since. Nadal with his swashbuckling style that raises the hair on the back of spectator’s necks, the iconic sleeveless tops that helped build his legend, as well as his sleek cuts and energetic color combos that now characterize his looks (never forget his now deceased capri shorts). Then there is Federer, a maestro if there ever was one, with his regal nod to the elegance of the sports’ past. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic also joined the fray, and challenged the status quo in artistic prints by Sergio Tacchini.
American style, led by Ralph Lauren and Andre Agassi, has its own impact on tennis
In the United States fashion trends have played a significant role in influencing tennis fashion. In the early 1970s, Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand created a luxurious ideal for American dreamers. There was an aspirational quality to the Polo, and it appealed to the masses, who saw themselves as upwardly mobile and wanting a second-helping of the American pie. The Polo was versatile, came in myriad colors and never went out of style.
In the eighties, aspiration morphed into rebellion as a new era dawned.
Next came street culture, which began working its way into the mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s. Wunderkind Agassi pushed boundaries in distressed denim and tacky neon that was screaming to be noticed. Plastered on billboard and ubiquitous on TV, Agassi helped facilitate a handshake between high fashion and low-art. He wore the obscene and the absurd and, perhaps most important, racked up eight major titles while doing so. Tennis fashion had gone from respect for authority to “sticking it to the man.”
Andre Agassi at the US Open, 1990
“A lot of it had to do with the rebellious phase I was in, anything that broke the establishment idea was a big motivator at the time,” Agassi told Forbes.
The looks were bold, bristling, boisterous; and the people couldn’t look away. Expression was the name of the game, the clothes slowly morphing into a canvas of progress.
Performance and technology take center stage
At the turn of the century, changes in performance apparel ushered in an era of breathable, lightweight materials that featured moisture wicking properties. It had been a long time coming. Agassi and his spandex tights were at the forefront. But the stretchy, feather-weighted fabrics gradually evolved and became a staple of shorts, t-shirts and hats. Replacing cotton, these synthetic garments allowed players to stay cool and dry, while also preventing bunching at key areas, around the seams, for maximum mobility.
The 21st century has seen technology push fashion to new and exciting motifs, and its impact hasn’t been only on the technical and performance side. Advancements in printing have made the tennis kit more of a canvas than ever before. In the late nineties Agassi’s Challenge Court collab with Nike set the ball rolling. Today the abstract is the norm, colors are endless, and the fabrics, less prone to bunching or wrinkling, have heralded a sleeker, more ergonomic fit.
And yet, the classic, crisp white will never go out of style…
The Yin and the Yang of tennis will always exist, and as far from the center tennis fashion deviates, wooed by its willingness to cultivate street art and abstract influences to push it forward, there will always be the urge to circle back to the center, to the perfection of classic whites, clean lines, and a subtle, nuanced sense of style that says more by saying less. Tennis’ rich history has offered style icons in every era. As tennis fashion moves forward it can’t resist the urge to step backwards into a more innocent time, when an innocence and purity guided the pulse of fashion.
Today, Roger Federer is the epitome of that throwback style. The regal maestro cavorting across Wimbledon’s Centre Court in all his elegance, a timeless relic that would stand out in any era, a touch of class to deafen the noise of the too much, too fast too often era we live in.
Wimbledon as a guiding light, completing the circle
Thanks to the cathedral we call Wimbledon, tennis has remained holy in the hearts of the tennis devout. Forever faithful to its original mandates, the All England Tennis Club has safeguarded the sports’ tradition, and by doing so, kept the classic appeal of tennis whites in vogue. Aided by the iconic Federer who, unlike Agassi, embraced the club and all its aspirational exclusivity, Wimbledon has remained the pinnacle of the sport and the example to strive for.
We see it in London and we recognize its appeal stateside, where thriving clubs in Newport, Longwood, Forest Hills and Philadelphia uphold the tradition and broaden tennis’ classic appeal.
There’s something to be said for simplicity—and tradition—and that’s why tennis fashion begins and ends with crisp, iconic whites.