Smashing Style

· Serving up fashion on the tennis court ·

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British Vogue compares 1920s tennis attire to earlier sporting fashions, August 1926

As Wimbledon wrapped up last Sunday, we already miss the competition. But perhaps more so, we miss the fashion. Despite the rigorous sport, tennis has always had a fashionable side. Perhaps it was its status as an acceptable game for women beginning in the twentieth century that ensured its place in the fashion world, but for nearly a century, tennis has been a place to look for style both on and off the court. While today we know to watch out for high fashion both on and off Centre Court, it was back in the 1920s that the strong connection was forged.

Tennis as a sport came onto the scene in the late nineteenth century. Kathleen E. McCrone wrote that lawn tennis, “achieved sudden popularity in the 1870s, partly as the result of a desire among youthful croquet enthusiasts for more active exercise.” It became a popular sport for both men and women as it was a genteel pursuit fit for the female persuasion. However, it wasn’t until the flappers liberated women’s legs in the 1920s that tennis style really picked up.

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An assortment of tennis and tennis-inspired fashions in British Vogue, June 1928

In the twenties, sport and women’s fashion became intertwined. Not only were there developments in what women wore on the courts, but those styles began to likewise influence casual day clothes. In October 1928, British society magazine The Tatler wrote, “Sports clothes have been developed to such an extent that they may go to lunch at the fashionable restaurants; as a matter of fact they are often worn until the hour of cocktail.”

While sportswear had long been an acceptable form of men’s casualwear, it wasn’t until after World War I that it became acceptable for women to wear sports clothes while out and about. Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, and Jane Regny all helped to popularize this craze and by the end of the period, tennis clothes were a perfectly acceptable and fashionable style to meet friends for tea or lunch in the city.

Though there was a craze for sport and exercise in general in the 1920s, the most popular sports were tennis and golf. Perhaps not to the extent of Royal Ascot (which had its own issue of British Vogue every year), tennis and golf were synonymous with a fashionable lifestyle. And each had its own distinct style. British Vogue wrote in 1926, “Each sport proclaims itself sartorially. By her clothes, one knows the woman who plays tennis, the woman who goes in for golf, and the woman who prefers to be a spectator.”

While Vogue distinguished between golf and tennis styles, there were still consistent themes. Pleated skirts that allowed for more movement, tweed, and cardigans all made their way into the sporty wardrobe. In October 1928, British Vogue wrote about the established “sports mode” within their coverage of the new Paris fashions:

“The chief novelty of the sports mode this season is that it has become a classic. The test of good sports clothes should be that the look is young, the going easy, and the wear long. They should be English in attitude, French in detail, and international in appearance.”

The article goes on to encourage women to choose their sports clothes for their sporting merit rather than looking as though they “have been bought in order to bring out the unnatural pink of the cheeks or the gold of the hair.” While tennis was fashionable, it was also serious business. “There is nothing ‘pretty’ about the sports mode – chic, yes, good, yes, well-bred every time, secure always, but not ‘dainty,’ not sweet, no raffish,” the article continued. This itself was a change from just years earlier. In 1926, British Vogue wrote, “Never before has the sports influence been felt so strongly, and yet, despite this, never were clothes more feminine…but the new carelessness is that of a sophisticated, well-groomed woman who feminises every fashion, no matter how mannish it may have been in its inspiration.”

Likewise, the evolution of tennis attire (and its social standing) was the topic of many articles in high fashion magazines in the twenties. In August 1926, British Vogue wrote about “Women of the World Then and Now.” It focused on sport and wrote, “Sport, we are always being told, has had more to do than anything else with the evolution of the modern mode.” The images compared what the modern woman was wearing to what her predecessors had and asked the question, “What will the tennis player of 2026 be wearing?”

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While we’re still waiting to see what she will be wearing, there’s one thing for sure: tennis has continued to have a strong relationship with fashion. Even back in the 1920s, British Vogue was reporting on both players and spectators at Wimbledon. Explaining their coverage of Wimbledon, they wrote, “A few years ago the Lawn Tennis Championships were purely a sporting affair. Now they have become as much a social function as the Eton-Harrow Cricket match or Henley Regatta.” Today, we wait anxiously not just for the matches but to see what onlookers choose to sport (pun intended).

The white, pleated skirts that became popular on and off the court in the 1920s still holds a place in tennis culture. And the preppy style that originated with cardigans, blazers and pleated skirts back then continue to symbolize tennis and upper-class leisure today. From Jackie Kennedy’s white sleeveless blouses in the 1950s to ultra-short miniskirts in the sixties and Ralph Lauren’s sporty prep, there continues to be a symbiotic relationship between tennis and fashion.

While we wait to find the answer to the question posed in 1926, there’s one thing that’s certain. We’ll keep watching Wimbledon and the other tennis championships for more than just their sport but for their style, too. See you in September for the US Open!


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