“As a nation we ought to welcome the healthy, hearty girl who can beat her brother in managing a tennis ball, in rowing a boat, and very often in managing a frisky horse.”
Ladies Home Journal, 1891.
The game of lawn tennis was invented in the 1860s by retired British army officer Major Walter Clopton Wingfield. He patented the game in 1874 and, within a few short years, lawn tennis had become one of the most popular sports for women in Victorian England. Ladies played it at society garden parties and at tennis clubs. By the mid-1880s, they were even competing at Wimbledon, leading the 1891 edition of the Wright & Ditson Officially Adopted Lawn Tennis Guide to declare that:
“Lawn tennis has done more to develop among girls a taste for outdoor sports than have all other exercises combined.”
Initially, an excess of athleticism was not encouraged in women. In fact, in her 2010 book The Sporting Life, author Nancy Fix Anderson explains that—though lawn tennis required a certain degree of physical exertion and strength—Victorian ladies were discouraged from playing in a competitive manner. Instead, they were urged to simply hit the ball to their opponent. In similar fashion, the Lawn Tennis Guide downplays women’s athletic ability, praising instead “the charm women bring to tennis.” As the guide states:
“They are graceful and gentle; they have spirit and enthusiasm; and in tennis, as in other things, they stimulate man to do his best. How they thank you with a look! how they rejoice with you! how they comfort you! how often they outdo expectation! and how pretty they are! If they fight against you, what winsome, if not winning, adversaries!”
Women’s clothing was not very helpful in combating these unfortunate stereotypes. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, for example, women simply wore their ordinary day dresses to play lawn tennis. Sleeves were long and skirts often brushed the ground. Wide-brimmed hats made it impossible to see overhead and heeled boots further impaired a lady’s movements. Add to that, women playing lawn tennis were expected to wear all the layers of normal dress, including corset, petticoats, and bustle.
Most ladies of this time period would wear a pinafore or an apron over their day dress to protect it from dirt and grass stains during play. As you can see in the below example, these tennis aprons usually had pockets to store extra tennis balls.
According to fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington, it was not until 1884 that sports costumes for tennis (as well as for archery, boating, shooting, fishing, and cycling) began to form “a distinct class” in women’s fashion. Magazines of the late 1880s advertised stylish tennis dresses made of wool, silk, sateen, or striped flannel. Skirts were straight and often pleated, with hems 2-4 inches off the ground. As for hats, Cunnington states:
“For lawn tennis many girls wear the counterpart of their brothers’ cricketing caps with a flap.”
The 1889 edition of The Woman’s World Magazine includes an illustration of a very fashionable tennis dress by Messrs. Debenham and Freebody. The description reads:
“The model has a skirt of check woolen, blue on white, the bodice made simply to the figure, the novelty about it being some lacings introduced on the collar-bone in front, and triple lacings at the waist; the jacket is of plain flannel in pure white, and can be slipped on and off as required. This is just the sort of dress that a true tennis-player would appreciate; it looks well, and insures perfect freedom.”
By the 1890s, women’s fashions for lawn tennis were beginning to adapt to the sport. In an article in the Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin of 1897, author Juliette Atkinson addresses these changes, writing:
“Some years ago it was thought that almost anything would do for a tennis costume; and the result was sometimes appalling. The player of today has rather more idea of the fitness of things, and does not appear on the courts in a woollen skirt, too long and much too heavy, a waist that certainly was never intended for the tennis court, and an absurd little visored cap that neither shelters from the sun nor adds to the appearance.”
Atkinson goes on to recommend a plain tennis dress with a full skirt, approximately “three yards and a half round” and “made to clear the ground by about four inches.” For color, Atkinson advises that “white is prettier for tennis than anything else.” For fabric, she suggests a lightweight piqué, well starched. As for trimmings, Atkinson writes:
“All ribbons, bows, in fact all fussiness should be dispensed with in the tennis costume. The simpler it is, the better.”
Though women’s tennis costumes were much more practical at the end of the Victorian era than they had been in the 1870s, they were still relatively restrictive—especially when compared with tennis costumes of today. Nevertheless, many talented sportswomen of the Victorian era were able to make a name for themselves in competitive play. In 1884, Maud Watson became the first female champion at Wimbledon. She was soon followed by Wimbledon champions Blanche Bingley, Lottie Dodd, Lena Rice, and Charlotte Cooper.
Charlotte Cooper would go on to win the tennis singles event at the Summer Olympics in 1900, making her the first individual female Olympic champion in history.
The 2016 Summer Olympics are currently in progress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Women’s tennis started on August 6 and competition will continue through August 14. There are no corsets, bustles, or long skirts, but I hope you all enjoy watching and rooting for your favorite players.