As Wimbledon gets under way this week, another match is being played out on tennis courts worldwide – one that is leading many female players to throw up their rackets in despair. The challenge is, quite simply: what to wear on court?
When it comes to amateur players from the fashion world, they tend to opt for the preppy look. Susie Rushton, deputy editor of Porter magazine, is a fan of dressing all in white on court. “You can’t beat Diane Keaton in Annie Hall in her club whites for a tennis pin-up: high-waisted white shorts and a cotton shirt, sleeves rolled up, and collar up,” she says.
“I’m also a big believer in wearing proper white sport socks, not the trainer liners that pretend you’re barefoot in your shoes – if you leap around on court, you really need to protect the balls of your feet.”
Emma Elwick-Bates, a Briton who recently moved to New York to join Vogue US, also favours white. “When I started playing, I was a member of a club with a no-nonsense whites policy, which at the time I loathed but now it’s all I buy,” she says. “I love a smattering of clay dust on white tennis shoes.” Her favourite shoes are by Nike and Stella McCartney for Adidas.
Where fashion plays out is in the details, as in a Peter Pan-collared polo from Sweaty Betty “for a gamine presence on court”. For a clubbable look, try Ralph Lauren’s box-pleat skirt and 1950s style varsity jacket from the Wimbledon collection.
This gap between retro whites and aggressively techno styles has created an opportunity. In 2013, fashion designer Stefanï Grosse, formerly of Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, founded Monreal, a tennis and golf wear label. German-born Grosse, who plays at high club level, recognised that male domination of the sportswear market resulted in styles that emphasised technical attributes at the expense of femininity. “Tennis wear consisted of either shrunken versions of menswear or the same style coloured baby pink or blue. Women have different priorities – sportswear is more than performance wear. There are women who spend a lot of money on fashion and want to look good in it.”
Grosse’s solution was to combine high-performance fabrics (no polyester) with stylish detailing and import her fashion knowhow into the silhouette and contouring. The line, stocked by Net-a-Porter, Harrods and Masons, a tennis store on New York’s Upper East Side, includes a popular drawstring dress with a front mesh panel and sheer side seam details.
There are several new contenders in the field. L’Etoile Sport, founded in the US in 2012 by professional athlete Yesim Philip, aims to marry feminine detailing with function. The line, which seems to take style cues from Azzedine Alaïa, includes lace-trimmed shorts and dresses, panelled jersey dresses with snapper fastenings and dropped waist skorts (a skirt-short hybrid) in a palette of dove grey, blush and white. The range sells online and at tennis resorts such as La Quinta in Palm Desert. “I want to keep tennis as a fashion-forward sport,” says Philip. “My professional muse is Suzanne Lenglen, who caused a sensation nearly a century ago winning Olympic gold at Antwerp in a kit by Patou.”
Lenglen used to go on court wearing pearls and furs. Near the end of her playing career she unveiled her own line, which featured tennis bloomers. Her glamour has rarely been matched but designers still try. At this year’s French Open, Fila launched its Modern Heritage line designed by Tommy Hilfiger’s sister Ginny. She reprised the nautical stripe, worn by Björn Borg, for a snazzy tennis dress and ruffle-edged skirt.
Niche brand Lija has candy-coloured, double-layered skirts and V-neck tank tops in a collection founded by Linda Hipp, who aims to make versatile kit that can take you from the tennis club to the running track. Adidas by Stella McCartney, which has animal-print tennis dresses in pale green and lemon, is a hit with players Andrea Petkovic and Ana Ivanovic.
Softer shades are on-trend after all the praise for Maria Sharapova’s salmon pink and orange Nike outfit at the French Open. Flashing tonally contrasting shorts under a flippy skirt is the style gesture of the day. And lingerie specialist Chantal Thomass has designed a Roland Garros range that brings the coquette on to court, including polo shirts with satin neck ribbons and a black pleat hem dress.
There’s also a growing market in well-dressed accessories. Monreal’s line includes co-ordinating grips with stars or stripes, or canvas racket covers in French blue and yellow ($295) at Park Accessories in New York.
As well as the classic versus loud debate, there’s the issue of wearing a skimpy tennis kit at an age when most professional players’ Wimbledon final days are well behind them.
Rachel Johnson, author and former editor of The Lady, who plays at the Campden Hill Lawn Tennis Club in London’s Holland Park, says: “It’s hard to find age-appropriate tennis gear. I’m 48 and there are ladies-who-lunch players who suffer from mutton-dressed-as-lamb syndrome.” In a moment of postmatch endorphin-charged madness, Johnson once bought ruffled blue shorts but generally favours a Ralph Lauren bias-cut tennis skirt, Babolat navy skorts, Adidas shorts and breathable T-shirts.
“Men’s tennis kit is much more elegant – I long for that. My favourite look is navy and white – it has a gym mistress air but you have to be careful not to enter Harajuku Girl territory,” she says, referring to the cartoonish Japanese street style. Unless, of course, you want to distract your opponent.