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Wimbledon Dress Code Woes: Tennis and its Troubled History with Attire

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

Throughout the years, the sport of tennis has trended in the media both for athletic performance as well as for racism, sexism, and double standards. Wimbledon 2022 is underway and so too is the analysis of the tournament’s old-fashioned clothing rules, shedding light on the sport’s history of disparate treatment and questionable standards.

Wimbledon’s dress code for competitors reads as follows:

Vox’s incredible piece detailing how the all-white dress code was derived from the Victorian era notes that class, hygiene, wealth and privilege are the reason for the color white’s dominance in the tournament. Repeatedly, these attributes have been found to be rooted in racism and classism. Despite the perceived implications of this dress code, it is quite shocking that it has continued for so long. Tennis fashion has evolved and adapted to the times at least to the degree that women are no longer wearing petticoats on the court; however, the all-white fashion is steadfast at Wimbledon.

The most recent concern regarding the all-white Wimbledon dress code is for athletes experiencing menstrual symptoms during the tournament and having concerns over competing in the all-white attire while internationally televised. Some find these concerns to be trivial, as athletes in all sports have to compete while experiencing menstrual symptoms. However, many do not understand the fear and embarrassment that comes with bleeding through your attire in public. It’s a fear that all people who menstruate have felt, and it should not have to be a concern that athletes face when they are competing.

Wimbledon is not the only tournament to come under fire for its dress code requirements. In 2018, Serena Williams donned a Nike catsuit at the French Open, that was not only stylish and sleek, but health-oriented. Williams openly stated that during her pregnancy she experienced complications, and also has a history of blood clots. The catsuit aided blood circulation in order to prevent blood clots. Despite the underlying medical reasons for her attire, some found the attire disrespected the sport. Bernard Giudicelli, President of the French Tennis Federation, stated that William’s catsuit would no longer be accepted at the French Open because “[Y]ou have to respect the game and the place.” The question of respect for the sport and the athlete’s choice of attire has not only plagued tennis but other sports as well. The Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms, apparently constituting “improper attire” by the European Handball Federation.

However, if athletes are better able to play the game while wearing certain attire, then why does the attire in question disrespect the sport itself? Couldn’t one argue that it is more respectful to the sport if athletes wear clothing that enables them to play their best? In addition, it remains to be proven how certain colors affect respect for the sport. White attire may be the coolest to wear under bright sunlight. Yet, surely other light colors could achieve the same benefit particularly given the range of fabrics and materials available in this day and age. One would hope that professional athletes competing at premier tournaments like Wimbledon would know whether playing in an all-black catsuit would affect their ability on the court.

Given the issues related to tennis attire and how it affects athletes on the basis of sex, race, and even disability, a question arises as to why legal action has not been sought more frequently, such as the case with Casey Martin and the PGA Tour. The Supreme Court found that “the PGA Tour was required under the Americans with Disabilities Act to grant Martin a reasonable accommodation based on his disability” that made it painful for him to walk the courses. Although a few athletes have challenged the right to accommodations or the freedom to wear attire that enhances their performance, many athletes fear repercussions for confronting outdated rules and may often feel they lack the legal standing to oppose the associations behind these tournaments.

Kate Rosenberg is a J.D. candidate for the Class of 2023 at Texas A&M University School of Law. She can be reached at @Katerosey1 on Twitter.

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