Tennis Dress, Part 1– A Few Images 1870’s to 1970’s

Tennis dress, Chesterfield cigarette ad, Nov. 1929. Delineator.

Tennis dress, Chesterfield cigarette ad, Nov. 1929. Delineator.

I am no authority on tennis or any other sport. I just have a batch of images to share — more than will fit into one post.

When I began playing tennis for fun, around 1971, I thought you were supposed to wear white on the court. In fact, my tennis partner and I felt quite daring because we were wearing the new white-piped-with-color tennis outfits, like this one.

Tennis dress and shorts, Simplicity pattern 9417, dated 1971.

Tennis dress and shorts, Simplicity pattern 9417, dated 1971.

Now, of course, women players like the Williams sisters appear in tournaments wearing comfortable stretch fabrics and brilliant hues. If some of the period illustrations I’ve come across are accurate, wearing white is a fashion that comes and goes (although casual play is different from playing at Wimbledon, where the dress code is strict.)

Tennis game in an ad for Indian Head Cloth, May, 1925. Delineator.

Tennis game in an ad for Indian Head Cloth, May, 1925. Delineator.

For informal games in the 1920’s and earlier, both spectators and players apparently had the option of wearing colorful clothing.

Tennis and golf dresses, Butterick patterns 5994 and 5590. May 1925, Delineator.

Tennis and golf dresses, Butterick patterns 5994 and 5990. May 1925, Delineator.

A sleeveless version of the red print dress is shown in the background, worn by a tennis player.

“5994:  If you omit the sleeves, this slip-over frock makes a smart tennis costume, for the two-piece circular skirt fastened at the hip-line allows freedom for running, etc. ”

Of course, tennis rackets, golf clubs and parasols were often used in pattern illustrations as as way of emphasizing the season, and may not be taken too literally. Another illustration of the blue “golf” dress above (No. 5990)  is shown with a tennis racket a few pages later — in a shorter version for a younger wearer. It does not seem well suited for running or leaping.

Butterick 5990, Delineator, May 1925

Butterick 5990, Delineator, May 1925. Here, the model is a teen.

Nevertheless, prints, stripes, plaids and colors all seem to have been acceptable — possibly chic — in a friendly game.

Masthead illustration of a tennis game, Delineator, July 1928.

Masthead illustration of a tennis game, Delineator, July 1928. The model below wears a very similar pleated skirt and patterned top.

Dressed fpr tennis, July 1925. Delineator.

Dressed for tennis? July 1925. Delineator. Butterick 6088.

Although she has both a racket and tennis balls, her shoes don’t look appropriate for active sports. (Rubber-soled shoes were available. Click here for some vintage Keds.)

Pattern description, Butterick No 6088. Tennis is not mentioned.

Pattern description, Butterick No. 6088. Tennis is not mentioned, nor is golf.

How Did They Do It? Some Earlier Tennis Outfits

A Rally, watercolor painting by Sir James Lavery, 1885.

“A Rally,” watercolor painting by Sir James Lavery, 1885. Detail.

For photographs of a tennis player actually dressed like this, click here. Playing tennis while wearing  a bustle, a corset, petticoats, and long hems, like this, must have required immense agility and balance. Not to mention stamina….

It was quite a handicap, as cartoonist George du Maurier noticed in 1877:

1877 tennis cartoon by Du Maurier. "Charlotte and Ethel, having accepted a Challenge to play against their cousins, Tom and Harry, insist upon Handicapping them, as is only fair."

1877 tennis cartoon by Du Maurier. “Charlotte and Ethel, having accepted a Challenge to play against their cousins, Tom and Harry, insist upon Handicapping them, as is only fair.”

Cartoonists also noticed that athletic young women — even those who scorned to play tennis wearing corsets — found male admirers. [Caution: This is a cartoon, from Punch magazine, not a photograph….]

Tennis without corsets, Cartoon, 1879. "They have given up stays altogether.... and are all engaged to Dukes."

Tennis without corsets, Caricature, 1879. “They have given up stays altogether…. [and] are all engaged to Dukes. “

The full caption says, “The O’Farrell – Mackenzie girls have gone in so extensively for early-rising, fresh air, cold water, farinaceous food, rowing, riding, rinking, lawn-tennis, gymnastics, and what not, that they have distorted their figures into the likeness of so many Greek statues, and have no more waist to speak of than that quite horrid Venus at the Louvre; indeed, they have given up stays altogether as a bad job. As they are all engaged to marry Dukes, Mr. Punch fears they will set the fashion; and as he holds that a long and wasp-like waist is as essential to a lady as a — well, as a hump between the shoulders, a prominent nose and chin, and a protuberant abdomen are to a gentleman, he hopes that the above caricature may serve as an example and a warning.” [Illustration from The Way to Wear’em, by Christina Walkley.]

The idea that a woman’s body should support itself without stays (boned corsets) — thanks to healthy exercise — was a principle of the Jenness-Miller magazine. This is a Jenness-Miller pattern for lawn-tennis, 1890.

Lawn Tennis outfit (right) from dress-reformer Annie Jenness-Miller. 1890.

Lawn Tennis outfit (right) from dress-reformer Annie Jenness-Miller. 1890.

Two decades later, British tennis champion Charlotte Cooper Sterry managed not to trip on her skirts, winning five singles titles in outfits like this one:

Tennis champion Charlotte Sterry, 1909; from Elizabeth Ewings' History of 20th Century Fashion.

Tennis champion Charlotte Sterry, 1909; from Elizabeth Ewings’ History of 20th Century Fashion.

In 1918, Butterick’s Delineator recommended a colorful two piece outfit:

Butterick patterns for a middy blouse and pleated skirt; tennis costume, July 1918.

Butterick patterns for a middy blouse (1033) and striped skirt (9723); tennis costume, July 1918. The skirt is striped, not pleated, although pleats were popular in 1918.

“Behind the tennis net a middy blouse and striped skirt do their part … championship in sport and fashion.”

In this 1925 advertisement, the male player wears white; one woman wears a white middy or dress with pleated (?) skirt, but the other wears lavender –and recognizable tennis shoes.

Indian Head Cloth ad, May 1925.

Indian Head Cloth ad, May 1925. Detail. Most of the women in the background — probably waiting to play — are wearing white.

“Gradually, white for tennis became a rule, so that in 1890 Wimbledon mandated all-white outfits for players. Elsewhere, the all-white tennis outfit became a decorous standard by the early 20th century — just in time, by the way, for the Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen to aggravate rich people everywhere by playing tennis in a (white) calf-length skirt and short sleeves.” — Emily Chertoff, writing in The Atlantic. Click here.

(Another theory is that white doesn’t show sweat stains as badly as colored fabrics.)

Champion Suzanne Lenglen wore a longish pleated skirt in this tournament:

Suzanne Lenglen playing tennis in 1919, from Elizabeth Ewing's History of 20th Century Fashion.

Suzanne Lenglen playing tennis, from Elizabeth Ewing’s History of 20th Century Fashion.

Lenglen wore many outfits designed by couturier Jean Patou in the 1920’s, which helped to popularize his sporty sweaters and skirts.  Lenglen first appeared at Wimbledon in Patou’s short white silk pleated skirt and a sleeveless cardigan in 1921. According to Brenda Polan & Roger Tredre, her outfit created a sensation and introduced the sporty, boyish look known as the “garçonne.”

“As with so much sportswear, many of [his] clothes were in reality bought by women who did not participate in sport and were more interested in showing off their Patou monogrammed cardigan sweaters to their envious friends.” — Polan and Tredre, in The Great Fashion Designers

Patou took credit for shortening skirts to the knee in 1925; he was one of the first designers to put his monogram very visibly on his designs — monogrammed cardigans, scarves, etc. This was a clever move, since without the monogram his relatively simple sportswear — sweater, skirt, and matching scarf — would not have proclaimed its price. [Sometimes I’d like to go back in a time machine and strangle Patou, but then I realize that somebody else —  probably his arch-rival, Chanel — would have invented the merchandising of Monogrammed “Designer” Everything if he hadn’t done it.]  For a concise history of Patou, see The Great Fashion Designers, by Polan and Tredre.

The outfit on the right shows Patou's influence. The woman is wearing tennis shoes and socks, so is probably not merely a spectator. Delineator, May 1929.

The outfit on the right shows Patou’s influence. The woman is wearing tennis shoes and socks, so perhaps she is not merely a spectator. Delineator, May 1929.

If you couldn’t afford couture, you could put your own monogram on your clothing.

Butterick patterns for August 1926. Right, No. 7043: "The Monogram is chic."

Butterick patterns for August 1926. Right, No. 7043: “The Monogram is chic.”

(Butterick sold embroidery transfers for alphabets as well as sewing patterns.)

Monogram fad, 1924. Butterick's Delineator magazine.

Monogram fad, 1924. Images collected from Butterick’s Delineator magazine.

The influence of Patou, as stated by Polan and Tredre, may explain why it’s not always easy to tell spectator sportswear from active sportswear in fashion illustrations. Which of these ladies are playing, and which are spectators?

Butterick patterns 2626, 2603, 2555, 1929. From "Delineator Backs the Tennis Frock." May, 1929.

Butterick patterns 2626, 2603, 2555, 1929. From “Delineator Backs the Tennis Frock.” May, 1929.

More about these patterns later.

For a slide show of historic tennis dress at Wimbledon, click here.  K. Shriya Sharma has written a chronology of women’s Wimbledon fashions in the Times of India. Click here to read it.

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 19th century, Late Victorian fashions, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Sportswear, Vintage patterns, vintage photographs, Women in Trousers

9 responses to “Tennis Dress, Part 1– A Few Images 1870’s to 1970’s

  1. What amazing images! I particularly love the one where the men are handicapped by women’s clothes.

  2. This is fantastic. I love the Lenglen outfit and think it was free enough for movement. I hope you will cover “gorgeous Gussie” and her frilly underwear next time!

  3. dinahpyrenees

    Interesting article, thank you – you have put in a lot of research! Can’t wait for part 2.

    Some comments….
    1. We don’t always see the signifance of tennis and tennis clubs today. In the late 19 / early 20 centuries they represented a major liberation for women. Girls could go there either unchaperoned, or “chaperone lite” because all members (male and female) had to be approved by the membership committee. Therefore, dear mothers, your daughter was safe at the tennis club.

    2. Tennis clubs were often more social than tennis – in the dark English winters they had dances, social evenings etc. An ideal way for girls and boys to mingle without parental oversight. Remember that before 1914 it was normal for the father of the household to open and read all incoming letters – wife, daughters etc.

    3. The game of tennis itself was a great liberator for women – long skirts, bustles, tight waists all disappeared, but it took a long time. I’ve seen circa 1910 advice to male tennis players that in mixed games (much more significant than today!) that men should not return shots to women that would not need an overarm response. Their corsets and dresses with small tight armholes would make raising the arm higher than the shoulder difficult. Gentlemen should return shots that could be played under arm.

    …anyone for tennis? …D

    • Thanks for the information about “tennis clubs.” I have no personal experience of the “country club life,” but the idea of only meeting “our kind of people” is a factor in both. The Vintage Traveler is a specialist in women’s sportswear; I just like to share pictures that I find interesting! One of her readers commented on the rules for men playing against women.

  4. Loved these, of course. You are right that the fashion illustrations should not be taken too literally. By the 1920s proper tennis dress was always white, though depending on where the court was located that rules was not always followed. I looked through my vintage photos of women tennis players in the 1920s, and all made an attempt to wear white, though other colors were often added.

    Interestingly, for golf, one never wears all white, but I’ve seen plenty of vintage illustrations showing golfers in white!

    • Fascinating! I had never heard about golfers not wearing all-white — You’d think that any sport played in the hot sun would be easier in white clothes. When I lived in a city with 100 degree summers, I could really feel the difference between a black shirt and a white shirt in full sun.

  5. Pingback: Paris Fashions from The Delineator, 1929. Part 1, Daytime | witness2fashion

  6. Pingback: Patou’s Evening Gowns for Short and Tall, 1936 | witness2fashion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s