Women’s Tennis at the Turn of the Century

Women’s Tennis at the Turn of the Century

This month is the US Open, and in celebration of the powerful females on the court today, I’d like to take a look back at the women who were playing at the turn of the century. We may look to Serena Williams now for fashionable inspiration as well as her incredible abilities on the court, but 100 years ago female players would typically wear a practical version of their usual day wear clothing.

The women below in this photo stylishly pose in their tennis gear, except that there is no discernible difference between how they dress themselves for the court and how they would dress themselves for day’s activities. The large leg-of-mutton sleeves are typical of the 1890’s silhouettes. The straw boater hats perched on top of their hair (which has been swept up into a top knot) was also a popular choice at this time and into the 1900s for any activity in the sun. Their long dark skirts that contrast the large, light-colored shirtwaists was a preferred look in the 1890s for any woman. The woman on the left wears a necktie and the woman on the right appears to have a bow tie with a starched shirt front. This would have been a slightly more masculine accessory choice, but one that was also very typical for that period. These women emulate what would have been called the New Woman at that time, meaning the kind of woman who was breaking away from a more traditional, home-bound role and was more independent and active – both in a physical and political sense. Still, this represented a large group of women at the time and this look would have been relatively common sight. In short, these women were able to wear their normal day wear clothing to also engage in physical activities like tennis. They are both stylish and mobile enough to play in their wide skirts.

Two_women_dressed_for_a_game_of_tennis,_1890-1900_(6894955048)
Two Women Dressed for a Game of Tennis, January 1, 1895, Queensland, Australia, State Library of Queensland  [No restrictions]

After this period, in the early 1900s, the S-curve silhouette became popular. This postcard depicts an idealized image of a woman in the S-curve silhouette playing tennis. In reality, there were other kinds of corsets available for women to wear while engaging in physical activity, though for someone more interested in tennis as a leisurely lawn game they may have still worn their usual corsetry. The S-curve corset was very long and one of the more cumbersome variations of corsets because of the particular way it shaped the body into what a deemed a highly feminine curve. It’s interesting to see the combination in this postcard of this dramatically curved body (which would have made playing more difficult) and large bows on the shoes, which feel like feminine attributes, and then the rolled sleeves, loose neck scarf, and tennis racket, which suggest more masculine elements of physical exertion. She looks very much like the tennis version of a Gibson Girl – a “modern” women who was still very feminine but possessed youth, a greater sense of independence, and was not afraid of physical exertion. In contrast, women who played tennis competitively would have looked more like the photo below this postcard:

Nebraska-TennisGirl-ca1905.jpg
Postcard, 1900s [Public Domain]

Carrie_neely_1905
Carrie Neely, 1905, Chicago, Illinois, Chicago History Museum [Public domain]
At least, for most women who were interested in tennis as a sport versus a social lawn game, their playing ensembles would have looked closer to that of Carrie Neely here in Chicago. The hat with a short brim, shirtwaist blouse, long skirt, and bow tie looks very similar to the women above from 10 years prior. The skirts are still wide enough to allow for movement (although this would soon see greater improvement) but the large sleeves are no longer in style and are cut in a more natural fit. Boater hats would still be worn although Neely’s looks like a similar but more flexible type of hat. Neely’s look is less decorated and feminine than what the average woman would have worn (who played casually and not necessarily as a competitive sport), but Neely was also especially serious about tennis. Neely won the US National Championship for mixed doubles in 1898, women’s doubles in 1903, 1905, and 1907,  and Niagra International Tennis tournament in 1902 . [1]

Neely’s lack of accessories reflects her seriousness, while she still likely dressed similarly off the court (unfortunately I cannot find other photos of Neely). Another highly competitive player was Florence Sutton. Sutton dressed for the sport with more flair, and this photo from a slightly later date reflects the creeping rise of skirt hems.

1024px-Florence_Sutton_LCCN2014689640
FLorence Sutton, 1910, Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]
Photos of Sutton usual show her without a hat but with her hair pulled back from her face like the photo above from 1910. The sleeves of her blouse are shorter and the hem of her skirt is showing her calves, which is possibly equal parts due to the improvement of clothing for physical activity (little by little) and the day wear styles of clothing from that period that were beginning to show more limbs (just don’t forget your stockings!). Sutton was a runner-up for singles and doubles of the 1906 Cincinnati Open and singles and doubles of the 1911 US National Championships. [2]

 

Bringing us into the mid-1920s is Suzanne Lenglen. Lenglen was a French tennis player and the winner of many titles including Wimbledon singles championships and Olympic gold medals in 1920. The pleated skirts she wore offered even more fabric for movement and she had a flapper-like quality to her style on and off the court. Her hair was bobbed in the 1920s and usually held in place with an elaborately wrapped band.

You can see in the left photo above that she also rolled her stockings (typical of flapper style) and in the right she wears a knit sweater. Interestingly, many players were wearing knits for tennis in the 1920s and for sportswear in general. This would have been considered typical of athletic wear for this period and sweaters were certainly worn by men for sport as well. What some have attributed to her specifically for tennis wear is a looser style of blouse and skirt for play. One article from a men’s magazine in 1921 wrote, “She was one of the first women to realize that in competing with the best players of the world it was important not to be shackled with long narrow skirts and waists fitting closely round the neck and shoulders.”[3]  As a tennis champion, I am sure that she did have some influence among women in terms of what they wore to play. More and more females were now encouraged and engaging in physical activity. Lenglen also brings an undeniable quality of style to her look along with practical pieces (much like Serena Williams today).

It’s also interesting that in 1921, what she was wearing on the court would have been highlighted and celebrated for its adaptations of greater movement. The magazine article continues to describe her clothing in great detail:

“Her costume – she always appears in the same kind of dress – is at once a model of good taste and good sense. Her shoes are the lightest of white canvas sandals, allowing her feet perfect support and yet giving her the full use of her toes when necessary. She wears a simple, white, one-piece linen dress, the skirt pleated from the hip line in such a way as to permit her to take any step or jump, no matter how far. It falls just below the knees and does not bind or restrict the action of her legs. It is cut in a low circle round the neck and the sleeves are less than three inches long. This leaves her arms entirely free and does not cramp her shoulder muscles. Her hair is covered by a sash four inches wide bound tightly round her head, and she never has to fix her hair or replace the stray locks that so often interfere with the playing of her sex. When a sweater is necessary, she wears a then woolen one ties at the waist which, falling gracefully from her shoulders, completes the costume and allows free play of every muscle in her body.[4]

Finally, we see garments that have been adapted to suit the tennis courts in the 1920s AND highlighted for this fact! Skirts and blouses had been further modified to the point where they now appeared specifically suited to the tennis court. This was due to the rise of the sport – prior to this, why spend your hard-earned money on a garment that would see very little use – and a greater acceptance and encouragement of serious female players. Of course, these modifications for Lenglen were not as dramatic as wearing bloomers, but I still think this represents the great social changes that were happening in the 1920s. Sportswear in general still had a long way to go, but it was much more acceptable for women to dress specifically for a sport in a way that enhanced their competitive success, and there were female tennis players paving the way with examples of how to do so.

-Danielle Morrin

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If you liked this post you might also enjoy:

What Will She Do in a Skirt?

Cycling with Style Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

 

[1] “Niagara Tennis Tournament,” The New York Times, August 31, 1902.

[2] “Miss Hotchkiss Wins From Miss Sutton,” The Gazette Times, June 18, 1911, 5.

[3] J.G.B. Morse, “Suzanne Lenglen, Greatest of Women Athletes,” The Open Road: The Magazine for Young Men, vol. 3, January 1921, 18.

[4]J.G.B. Morse, “Suzanne Lenglen, Greatest of Women Athletes,” The Open Road: The Magazine for Young Men, vol. 3, January 1921, 18.

 

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