Tennis, Anyone?

With Wimbledon starting today, I’m in the mood for tennis. But I’m glad I don’t have to play it in this.

While this dress in LACMA’s Costume and Textiles collection may not look like tennis gear, it’s what would have been worn by the first female competitors at Wimbledon. Lawn tennis was invented in 1873 and quickly became wildly popular throughout England. The first Wimbledon tournament was played in 1877, though women did not compete until 1884.

Tennis was enjoyed primarily by the upper classes, and it was one of the few sports that men and women played together. As a result, female players were expected to dress attractively and fashionably as well as comfortably. It was not unusual to see high collars, long sleeves, corsets, gloves, high heels, and even bustles on the tennis court.

While following the fashionable bustled silhouette of the mid-1880s, this dress makes a few small concessions to the physical rigors of the game. It is made of lightweight, washable cotton, with a shortened skirt and a deep pocket for holding balls.

Instead of a bulky undergarment, the bustle is created by built-in hoops with interior ties to adjust the volume. These innovations distinguish it from everyday fashion.

In dress as well as behavior, tennis changed the rules for women off the court. In 1885, the magazine The Field observed: “Lawn tennis has taught women how much they are capable of doing and it is a sign of the times that various game and sports which would have been tabooed a few years ago as ‘unladylike’ are actually encouraged at various girls’ schools.” Elements of sportswear—like shorter skirts and pockets—found their way into streetwear, while bustles disappeared, hopefully forever. Over the years, tennis has continued to launch fashion trends, from Suzanne Lenglen’s headbands to the daring black lace and neon yellow ensembles designed and worn by five-time Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles champ Venus Williams.

You can see this dress on display in the Resnick Pavilion beginning October 2 as part of the exhibition Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700–1915.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, Research Scholar, Costume and Textiles

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