Proper Tennis Dress, 1914

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.

8 Comments

Filed under Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Summer Sports

8 responses to “Proper Tennis Dress, 1914

  1. Wow, I can imagine tennis was even more difficult to play in the voluminous garments suggested – brava for short skirts and bare arms! Isn’t that one of our rights – the right to bare arms? 😉

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  2. what were they NOT thinking!?..were women permitted to sweat – or just ..”glow’….nothing like starched linen head to toe Heaven forbid the poor girls breathe!…

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  3. I still have one of my great grandmother’s tennis dresses in which she played doubles on Baltimore courts in around 1895-6. Very yellowed, in college I occasionally wore it for I had the waist line then. Lightweight lawn with beautiful embroidery & made as you say to be worn with corsets, indeed stylish young ladies never left the house without one. My mom once asked how it was possible to run back and forth to hit the ball back in such elaborate (by our standards) attire. My great grandmother told her that the young men didn’t hit the ball very hard so the lady could manage.

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    • One of my favorite images in the movie musical Gigi is only seen in passing: a beautifully attired woman standing perfectly still in a tennis court, hitting balls that she can reach just by holding out her racket — exactly as Sarah’s grandmother said!

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  4. vastlycurious.com

    I can’t imagine playing in such heavy garb. However , on the other hand, I think what is worn today is too revealing in many cases.

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  5. Carrie

    So interesting! I didn’t know of the courtship/court connection…

    Miriam Hall’s advice on tennis dress seems radically sensible for the time, down to the orthotics she seems to be recommending for canvas shoes! But… how does one support stockings from t he shoulder? (Not sure I want to know…:)

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