Has Tennis Become A Sartorial Playground? 
Has Tennis Become A Sartorial Playground? 

A flash of Gucci might just be the end of Wimbledon’s strict all-white dress code

Tennis is one of those rare sports that tests the depth, psyche, and physicality of each participant unlike any other. It’s every man for himself, forcing each player to bring an element of personality on the court that is unique and, in most cases, inimitable. And it often starts with a relatively greater degree of sartorial freedom that the sport grants to its players sans customary jerseys and kits. 


But it’s that time of the year again when players are asked to curb their fashion experiments and bow down to the hallowed tradition of Wimbledon. While the world’s accustomed to fifty shades of grey, the greatest grand slam of all only approves of pristine white— not cream, not off white. Defying the strict dress code only invites a hefty fine. 


The rule even extends to one’s medical support and training kit. This immediately put the spotlight on Jannik Sinner, the new kid on the block, who made heads turn by strolling onto the court with a Gucci duffle bag hanging from his shoulder. Adorned with the iconic “GG” monogram and red and green stripes, the beige carryall has arguably become the mascot of Wimbledon 2023.  


While many wondered how Wimbledon would respond to this act of defiance, it soon came to light that Gucci had already made an arrangement with the International Tennis Federation, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and Wimbledon. While the idea sounds like a welcome change, only time will tell whether this watershed fashion moment will pave the way for more such collaborations between luxury houses and tennis.  


Nevertheless, as the style statement goes, this was quite emphatic but not unprecedented. More than a century-long history of Wimbledon is replete with players pushing the sartorial envelope, testing the moral limit of the establishment. 


Back in the day 


The journey of tennis as we know it today begins in the Victorian era. It was a game played by the leisured class in garden parties in long-sleeved shirts, and flannel trousers. Comfort was the first priority, given the very reason elites embraced this game was because it wasn’t too demanding on their body. But as tennis spread its tentacles to different parts of the world, players also brought their own ideas, and their own personalities into the game. And soon comfort gave way to competitiveness.  


Having won the grand slam on seven occasions, the Frenchman René Lacoste knew how the formal attire restricted the fluency of movement on the court. To run down the net in a long-sleeved button-down shirt is just too much. Lacoste came up with the idea of wearing a lightweight polo shirt in 1926. Soon long-sleeved button-down shirts became obsolete. 




Weighed down with the heaviness of flannel trousers, the English tennis player Henry Wilfred Austin went to his personal tailor and came up with the idea of wearing shorts in 1933. Austin’s choice was met with widespread derision from the game’s elites for the move. Although the idea seemed alluring, players were a bit hesitant to walk on Austin’s path, since “men’s legs was considered unattractive,” as Suzanne Rowland, the fashion historian, notes in her essay, “Object, image, and reality in women’s tennis dress”.  


Austin brought a dash of modernity to tennis, but the constant tussle between Wimbledon and the players’ sartorial expression didn’t end with them. When Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win Wimbledon in 1975, he went on to collect the trophy in an iconic navy-blue varsity jacket and shorts that ended way above his knees. An unmistakable thick spectacle and Rolex ‘Presidential’ were his constant companions.  


A new world  


Bjorn Borg dreamed of daring beyond playing the plain white shirt, and he found an ally in Fila, a sportswear brand that was keen to leave its mark on the tennis circuit. Borg donned a pinstripe polo shirt with a blue-collar shirt—partly inspired by Babe Ruth’s baseball attire—and paired it with a red and blue striped headband. It became a cult classic, also putting Fila on the global map. After Borg, it was John McEnroe’s turn, of course. In the iconic 1980 Wimbledon final, McEnroe made a style statement with his Sergio Tacchini polo top that was embellished with broad stripes of red and blue on the shoulders. The red headband completed his iconic look. Torben Ulrich, the Danish Tennis player who is also the father of Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich, brought a streak of Hippie culture onto the court by wearing a headband on his eyebrow. Pat Cash notoriously showed his defiance against Wimbledon’s newly-mandated all-white accessories policy by spotting a checkered headband. Cash later revealed that he got this idea from Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Neilsen, who was famous for his signature black-and-white checkerboard pattern. 




The 70s—and the decades following it—were a landmark decade when more and more players joined the bandwagon to register their protest against the hard-nosed conservatism of Wimbledon. But while these players often used the court as a site for their act of rebellion, Andre Agassi known for his outlandish fashion, took it even further by straight up refusing to play the tournament between 1988-1991. Agassi eventually ceded his ground and won his first Wimbledon title in 1992. 


Blurred lines 


One would expect Wimbledon to eventually bow down to such regular acts of defiance and relax its dress code to keep up with the spirit of the age. Instead, they doubled down. Not willing to cede ground, they introduced a new mandate in the mid-80s that not only clothes but even accessories should be white. In 1995, they further tightened the noose by replacing the “predominately in white” rule with the “almost entirely in white”. In 2014, they restricted the width of stripes to 1 cm. Even the soles of the shoes or the undergarments are not free of Wimbledon’s scrutiny.  


Voicing a collective angst of sorts, Roger Federer too lost his cool when he was banned from wearing orange-soled shoes. “I just find it quite extreme to what extent it’s gotten to white. We’re talking white like it was in the ’50s,” said the legend last year. While the game surely has advanced beyond measure, it could be argued that Wimbledon’s dress code has only regressed with time, and any expression of individualism is seen as a threat to their tradition. Yet no matter how stringent the dress code gets; players will continue to challenge that. And after Sinner, maybe the ball’s finally in their court. 

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