Clothing as a Tool for Oppression and Emancipation in Women’s Tennis

By Ingrid Heimer (‘21)

Most of history’s fashion controversies have a common denominator: they involve women. Many of these controversies consist of women donning attire less restrictive than that which society permitted them. Tennis has been one of the most regulated sports in the U.S., especially since women started playing in the late 19th century. Both the clothes men permitted them to wear and the scrutiny towards that attire have detracted from their playing and ultimately from the countless attempts of women to be regarded on an equal playing field—or court. As women achieved respectability as tennis players, so too has their sportswear evolved from cumbersome and unaccommodating to supportive and celebratory. 

Tennis umpire, player, designer and friend-to-the-pros Theodore “Teddy” Tinling was a considerable voice in the discourse surrounding the controversies of women’s tennis as early as the Roaring Twenties. This paper will analyze women’s liberation through the lens of various tennis-wear controversies, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into the 1970s, as well as focus on Tinling’s role in many of the fashion choices that got female players noticed—either for their play, their sexuality, or both. 

Patricia Warner, author of When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear, asserts that women playing sports publicly was originally permitted primarily as a new, socially acceptable medium for courting (1). Therefore, at the foundation of women’s sports in the United States, was an intrinsic relationship to men. What a woman wore to tennis, then, was also shaped by the potential for interaction with the opposite sex. The outfit’s ability to toe the line between appropriateness and allure for “interaction with men” came before any other consideration. Accordingly, female tennis players were not held to the same standard of physicality and therefore “were not expected to actually run for the ball” (1). Little incentive existed for ladies’ tennis outfits to evolve from long, petticoated skirts, corseted waists, and starched, high-necked blouses. Warner asserts that it was difficult for women to escape male scrutiny and regulation since, from the beginning, “it was men who made the rules of the game” and further “enforced the rules and the fashion of play” (1). A second book that details momentous events in women’s sport history dedicates an entire chapter to women’s tennis attire. Author Jamie Schultz, in agreement with Warner, argues the discourse around female sportswear almost always has had more to do with propriety than functionality. Another regulatory aspect of the control over tennis clothing comes from tennis’ origins of racial oppression: the “white is right” mentality (2). White clothing was expensive to keep clean, so tennis officials used the white uniform rule to keep tennis relegated to the predominantly-white upper-class. Warner and Schultz therefore contend that the heteronormative and high-class origins of accepting publicly active women provide the basis for the limitations and scrutinization of women’s sportswear seen in the following decades (1, 2). 

The early days of lawn tennis found few supporters for women’s increased physicality, so the necessity of accommodating tennis wear was largely ignored. Author Henry Slocum, a tennis player himself, laments in Outing magazine in 1889 that female players could not succeed in the sport without malicious criticism (3). He argues that female hardships could be lessened if women played with less restrictive clothing, such as the corset. However, Slocum also declares that women’s second disadvantage is their natural lack of muscle, and encourages learning easier strokes involving less running to improve their game (3). The author acknowledges the difficulties female players faced from their restrictive clothing standards, while simultaneously concurring with the oppressive ideology that houses these constricting sportswear standards: female physical inferiority. It is assumed that Slocum’s piece did little in the way of advancing women’s liberation at the time of publication.  

An article printed eleven years later in Harper’s Bazaar entitled “Good Form in Women’s Tennis” puts forth three points: women are not good at tennis, clothing hinders those who wish to be good are, and a shorter skirt is “absolutely necessary” (4). Despite the article’s condescending tone, the author encourages reasonable sportswear as a remedy to his first assertion. Also authored by a male professional tennis player, the article’s encouraging voice may have tempered some critics of female physicality. However, any proposed change to women’s tennis dress was slow-going—these publications urging women to give up their on-court corsets were printed at least twenty years before women were able to. Because these few-and-far-between voices of progress were men’s, women were not inspired to change their dress until they saw other prominent female players do so.  

In 1920, Suzanne Lenglen became the first notable female player to dominate opponents without a corset; tennis officials vehemently disapproved (2). Spectators and journalists also considered Lenglen scandalous for wearing a calf-length skirt and a sleeveless shirt, allowing her arms and legs full mobility (2). According to her close personal friend and future tennis-wear designer, Teddy Tinling, Lenglen was the first female player who dared to put skill and athleticism above anything else, including propriety (5). Although Lenglen wore freer clothing to improve her game, Tinling also recounted her teaching him the true nature of the sport: show business. She needed to wear scandalous clothing to get people to notice how well she could play. Lenglen’s example seems to have influenced Tinling for life because he is later quoted by the Los Angeles Times saying that he tries “‘to make a woman as attractive as [he] can — for men. How can you have show business without sex? The men pay the bills’” (5). As early as the 1920s, women not only began altering their sportswear to improve their game, but also to get their skill noticed. Players like Lenglen were not afraid of using their sexuality for this purpose. 

About a decade after Lenglen’s clothing controversy on the court, Helen Jacobs played Wimbledon in knee-length shorts. At this time, shorts were only appropriate for male athletes, and for “this reason…many disapproved of them as women’s wear” (2). Therefore, when Helen Jacobs played the 1931 Wimbledon tournament in this attire, spectators and journalists focused more on her masculineuniform than skill. Whether a player utilized her sexuality or turned to less-restrictive men’s attire for the advancement of her game, the early twentieth century met their unconventional actions with contempt. 

While playing in 1949, player Gussie Moran’s skirt moved to reveal lace-lined undershorts due to its length.  According to an article published in Sports Illustrated, these undershorts caused “just as many thrills” as any men’s game (6). Moran titillated the crowd each time she jumped or bent down. By this time, spectators had grown accustomed to her wearing shorts to play. Reception to the undergarment went beyond shock: observers called ‘Gorgeous Gussie’ “frivolous” for wearing such a feminine and improper garment. Furthermore, critics claimed that she was in no place to make statements when she was not very good at the sport (6). After this incident, ‘Gorgeous Gussie’ became a sex symbol, and tennis officials felt dismayed by what they viewed as yet another attack on traditionalism (2). 

Teddy Tinling designed the panties himself, and neither he nor Moran considered the impact they would have—he certainly did not predict he would have to resign from his position with Wimbledon because of them! They were hastily constructed when Gussie realized she had nothing to wear under her new skirt (7). Compared to Suzanne Lenglen, Gussie’s overt sexuality detracted attention from her playing, rather than drawing spectators to focus on her skill. This decision also lost Tinling his job as an official at Wimbledon, forcing him to relocate to the United States. 

These seemingly discrete cases bookend female tennis players’ most important decade in America: the 1970s. It was during this period the “Original 9,” which included Billie Jean King and eight other women’s tennis professional players, hosted and competed in their 1971 Women’s Tennis Circuit after being banned from the United States Lawn Tennis Association for protesting against gendered differences in prize money. A few years later, the famous Battle of the Sexes between the fearless leader of women’s tennis liberation Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (a chauvinistic male tennis player) became the most-watched televised sporting event of all time. Though the attire was not the focus of the controversial Battle of the Sexes or the events of the Virginia Slims-sponsored circuit, the players’ dress played a major role in their pursuit for legitimacy and respect. Also during the 1970s, Tinling built himself an impressive clientele, including King and the rest of the Original 9. 

Tinling designed more dresses for women tennis champions in his tenure than anyone else in the history of the sport. He became a powerhouse, the most sought-after designer for female players. Each of his creations catered to the personality, playing style, and physical shape of the player (7). This made his business especially attractive to his nearly all-female patronage. Finally, athletic clothing was being made not just to support a female player’s athleticism, but celebrate it. In many ways, Tinling’s work directly reflected current tennis phenomena. Recalling his specially made busts of on-court rivals Billie Jean King and Margaret Court, he reminisces that “‘they kept glaring at each other…even without heads’” (5). 

As Billie’s designer and close personal friend, Tinling produced King’s Battle of the Sexes dress. He spent the morning of the match sewing extra rhinestones on it to make it shine in the Houston Astrodome (8). Though it may seem that King’s focus was not on clothing, she recognized its role in the expansion of women’s tennis. Sports Illustrated profiled her and UCLA Coach John Wooden, named Sportswoman and Sportsman of the year 1972. In their conversation, King laments the lack of athletic opportunities for women at the time and communicates that tennis’s focus on tradition and etiquette is a barrier to not only women but people of lesser means also desiring to play (9). Reminiscent of Lenglen before her, King believes the way to fix tennis is by focusing on “the caliber of play” and moving away from regulations on clothing (9). While prominent players were bolstered by improved tennis wear in the 1970s, there was still much progress to be made.

Teddy Tinling was a longstanding institution of the sport who “loved to tweak the establishment, of which he [was] a part” (7). He and the players for whom he designed faced decades of criticism for pushing limits. Despite the efforts of the feminist movement of the 1970s, both Tinling and Billie Jean King felt that female players needed sportswear that was physically flattering as well as athletically facilitating to reach equal status with men. Lenglen, Jacobs, Moran, the Original 9, and Tinling all fought to prove that women could be both feminine and athletic through their clothing. However, the method of increasing both the physicality and sexuality of the players’ outfits raises questions on its efficacy. Controversy still exists about whether drawing attention towards sexuality increases objectification of the woman and decreases attention to her skill, or provides a pathway for a spectator’s gaze to land on the skill of the player.

Even though female players are no longer wearing Tinling designs, the message his work put forth is present in the current culture surrounding women’s tennis. The normality of allowing women to wear sportswear that enhances physical confidence on the court has increased since the 19th century. The appropriateness of players’ outfits, however, is still contentiously analyzed. Serena Williams’ 2018 French Open black bodysuit likely comes to mind: the difficulty in finding a balance between modesty and physical expression still exists. The evolution of women’s tennis through the lens of dress showcases the intimate relationship between the two: dress reflects and causes controversy. Every once-earth-shattering controversy becomes normalized among spectators and players alike, at least until someone sports another eyebrow-raising look. Simultaneously mediating and defining distinctions such as athlete, activist, and woman, both sports and clothing concurrently reflect a changing culture and shape American identities.

Ingrid Heimer is an American Studies and Pre-Health major at the University of Notre Dame. Her article was originally written for Professor Annie Coleman’s American Studies course, ‘Sports and American Culture.’ After graduation she will be taking a gap year at her home in Los Angeles, and then matriculating into medical school in the Fall of 2022. 


  1. Warner, Patricia. When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. University of Massachusetts Press, 2006, 3x-60.
  2. Schultz, Jaime, “What Shall We Wear for Tennis?” in Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2014, 15-46.
  3. Slocum, Henry. “Lawn Tennis as a Game for Women.” Outing, an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, Jul. 1889, 289-301.
  4. Paret, J Parmley, “Good Form in Women’s Tennis.” Harper’s Bazaar (New York, NY), June 9, 1900, 341-343.
  5. Mayeron, Candace. “All That Glitters Is…Teddy Tinling’s tennis wear. He’s dressing women like they’ve rarely dressed — sexily.” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 1975.
  6. Brown, Gwilym. “A Little Lace Goes a Long, Long Way.” Sports Illustrated, Jul. 1969, 44-47.
  7. Muscatine, Alison. “Tennis Dress, Anyone?” Washington Post, Sept. 5, 1989.
  8. Leibowitz, Ed. “How Billie Jean King Picked Her Outfit for the Battle of the Sexes Match.” Smithsonian Magazine, Sep 2003. 
  9. Kirkpatrick, Curry. “Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year: The Ball in Two Different Courts.” Sports Illustrated, Dec. 1972, 29-33.

Though we may be accessing this site from around the world, we acknowledge our affiliation with the University of Notre Dame and thus our presence on the traditional homelands of Native peoples (even if virtually) including the Haudenosauneega, Miami, Peoria, and particularly the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik, who have been using this land for education for thousands of years, and continue to do so.

%d bloggers like this: