The roots of tennis date to the Middle Ages, but the modern game did not emerge until the 1870s. First played on the great estates of England, the game quickly spread to the US where it retained its elitist air. The game was played in private clubs, and in mixed sex company. In fact, women themselves started playing the game.
In the nineteenth century the game was not the fast paced running game of today. Players generally just passed the ball back and forth across the net, with little running required. Women actually played in the fashionable dress of the day (including corsets) with few concessions to the sport. Pre-1900 photos show women playing in swagged skirts, skin tight jackets and constricting sleeves.
There was a reason. Private clubs and resorts where tennis was played were prime courting territory. Young unmarried women and men wanted to look like suitable marriage material, and that meant dressing in the proper manner. Even though fashion magazines at the time showed proper tennis attire, the dresses were pretty much what a woman would have worn for any outdoor activity.
A big change in tennis wear for women happened around the turn of the twentieth century. It was discovered that the dark skirt and white waist combination that was so popular with women was well suited to tennis. The waist was blousy and loose, and the skirt was A shaped and allowed for movement. The skirt was still long, but it no longer swept the ground.
About the same time, white dresses for summer became the style, and so before long the skirt was white as well. According to Patricia Campbell Warner in her book When the Girls Came Out to Play, the choice of the color white also appealed to the elite. It was hard to keep clean and required a lot of care in laundering, requiring time and resources limited to the well-to-do.
In 1914 tennis player and teacher Miriam Hall published a little book titled Tennis for Girls. Tennis was becoming a fast paced game that required movement of the arms and freedom of the legs. Ms. Hall gave suggestions on tennis dress in the book.
Clothing, light of weight, should be worn, enabling one to move freely. There should be no restriction at the neck, and as little as possible at the waist. To further this, it is wise to substitute for the corset, some good corded waist, or a boned brassiere, the stockings to be supported from the waist or shoulders. The use of the round garter is worse than foolish – it is often dangerous, leading to the formation of varicose veins.
The sleeves should not extend below the elbows and the skirt should be wide enough to permit a broad lunge and not longer that five inches from the ground. The best shoe is of soft canvas with a flexible, not too heavy, rubber sole. If there is a tendency toward fallen arches, a light-weight leather support should be worn inside the tennis shoe.
In the photo Hall is wearing what looks to be a middy over a sports skirt, pretty much the same outfit that schoolgirls across the country were wearing to school each day.
It took a tennis star, Suzanne Lenglen, to bring short skirts and bare arms to the tennis dress. When she first appeared in such an outfit at Wimbleton in 1919, it was scandalous. Six years later women were wearing her look on the streets.