From Wimbledon to the French Open, tennis has served up style inspiration for over a century – and this summer, a new wave of ethical athleisure wear is set to raise the game
By Samantha Lewis
Tennis and fashion first commingled in 1919, when a young Frenchwoman named Suzanne Lenglen stepped onto court at Wimbledon without her corset. She sported a flouncy dress that exposed her bare arms and legs, which was considered downright scandalous at the time. While her rebellious act sent shockwaves around the stadium, it paved the way for substantial change. Women were finally allowed to wear clothing that enabled them to play with freedom: outfits became looser and hemlines considerably shorter. By the mid-1980s, tennis stars were veering even further away from tradition. Anne White hit the headlines when she wore a white unitard to play at Wimbledon.
It was also a skin-tight one-piece that caused a ruckus when Serena Williams donned a black catsuit at the 2018 French Open. It was her first Grand Slam match since giving birth, and she said the outfit made her feel like a “warrior”. But tennis officials weren’t fans of the look and declared that such outfits would no longer be allowed. Maria Sharapova’s 2008 ensemble was another major fashion milestone. She paired white tailored shorts with a tuxedo-inspired top, which some suggested was intended to poke fun at Wimbledon’s strict dress code. Today, tennis’ influence on fashion has extended to the high street. Athleisure is getting a country-club-chic upgrade this summer, following the rise of a new aesthetic called “tenniscore”. The trend blends fashion and function: think pleated mini skirts, preppy polo shirts and logo jumpers that can be worn on the court and for every day. So, why is tennis style so of the moment?
The pandemic has certainly played its part, as outdoor sports like tennis surged in popularity, especially among a younger demographic. The LTA reported an unprecedented 372% rise in tennis participation over the past year. These figures are mirrored across the Atlantic – in the USA, tennis has experienced the highest growth rate of any “traditional sport”, with an unprecedented 6.78 million new or returning players, taking total participation to 21.64 million. Clothing brands responded by producing trend-led pieces aimed at the new devotees – and so Gen Z’s obsession with the tennis skirt was born. Social media, most notably TikTok, also helped get the ball rolling. The hashtag #tennisskirt has racked up an impressive 78 million views on the platform.
One brand that’s receiving a lot of attention thanks to the trend’s viral frenzy is L’Etoile Sport, an American company specialising in luxury tennis activewear. Founder Yesim Philip says the collection, which includes tennis skirts, dresses and tank tops, seeks to honour the sport’s tradition while adding modern flair. “Throughout the years, I have loved Chris Evert, who has always been a very chic player, as well as Suzanne Lenglen from way back. L’Etoile Sport as a brand, however, is inspired by more than any particular athlete and rather via the fluidity and elegance of the sport as a whole,” she comments.
“We design strong lines and clothes that move with you on the court. They elongate and showcase the body in the best way possible for tennis. Tenniswear is more than just being practical and functional, it is meant to be an expression of self.” Yesim goes on to say that you don’t necessarily have to pick up a racket to look like a tennis pro: “The motto for L’Etoile Sport is ‘play all day’. Ultimately, we want to create looks that allow our customers to feel great both on and off the court. “We know it’s important that our women feel strong and feminine, while being comfortable and able to move and sweat. L’Etoile Sport is where fashion meets function and confidence,” she adds.
A number of other brands are putting a sustainable spin on tennis apparel. The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) has released a new leisure- and performance-wear line, including an outfit made from recycled plastic bottles. The club, which hosts Wimbledon every year, has created the capsule collection in white with a symbolic ocean-blue trim to highlight sustainable sourcing. From next year, it has pledged that 99% of fabric used in the entire performance-wear collection will be recycled. Each individual piece of clothing will contain the equivalent of up to 20 plastic bottles.
EXEAT, founded by British entrepreneur Laura Ward, is also leading the way in ethical tennis athleisure. Her first collection launched last month, after three years of research and development. The entire line, which features tennis dresses and various separates, is made from world-leading ecological fabrics using recycled yarns and regenerated ocean plastics.
“We knew it was crucial to lead by example and prove to the industry that it’s possible to manufacture ethically and still drive a healthy bottom line,” says Laura. “Our customer expects their favourite brands to align with their values. We embody modern luxury for the conscious consumer.”EXEAT’s tennis dresses are the standout garments, with their bespoke pleats inspired by Laura’s time spent observing atelier tailoring in Paris. She adds: “Our clothes have all the elite, technical performance you’ll find on Centre Court, combined with beautifully timeless tennis designs, so flattering that you’ll never want to take them off. “Our collection translates perfectly from court to clubhouse, to coffee on the King’s Road – we don’t believe you should have to choose between performance and style.”
Another designer turning heads is California-based Marysia Dobrzanska Reeves, who has made her first foray into athleisure. Her new 18-piece collection includes sports bras, leggings, tennis dresses and bike shorts, all with the brand’s signature scalloped edges. The pieces are made sustainably, from recycled fabrics, and named after female tennis stars. Marysia, who launched her eponymous label in 2009, dreamt up the collection during the Covid-19 lockdown: “I always thought about designing sport, but didn’t have the time. We’ve been producing three collections a year, so it was just a lot to handle. Last year we skipped a whole season because of Covid-19, so I had some extra time to design what I wanted,” she comments.
Marysia says she is committed to reducing her brand’s environmental impact. “Sustainability and size inclusiveness have been on our mind for a long time, and we have been working on accomplishing that goal over the last few years. “Swimwear, especially, is a hard fabric to try to make sustainable, but we introduced our Swimclean line in 2020 and now all Marysia swimwear and sportswear is sustainable. We moved all resortwear production back to New York, which in itself is much more sustainable,” she explains.
In many ways, the relationship between tennis and fashion hasn’t moved on in the past 100 years. It’s still a tussle between two opposing forces: time-honoured tradition on one side of the net and disruption of the status quo on the other. Indeed, watching the clash and wearing the garms is all part of the game’s enduring allure.