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The Serena Williams catsuit ban shows that tennis can’t get past its elitist roots

Serena Williams has had her hair, body, and clothing picked apart for years.

Serena Williams in a catsuit at the 2018 French Open.
Serena Williams in a catsuit at the 2018 French Open that drew comparisons to Marvel’s Black Panther.
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Serena Williams stunned fans at the 2018 French Open when she stepped onto the court in a catsuit. Black with a red waistband, the full-length bodysuit looked striking on Williams, a new mom; she was likened to a superhero in the ensemble.

But the catsuit won’t be welcome at Roland Garros again. While fans and the media praised the look, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli said in a Tennis Magazine interview published Friday that it won’t be back.

“I think we sometimes went too far,” he said. “The combination of Serena this year, for example, it will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.”

The catsuit ban led to considerable backlash in the days since it was announced. Williams herself weighed in and said she was not upset by the decision.

But Giuidicelli’s comments ignore the history of the game: Tennis has long been a sport where athletes’ fashion choices have been the source of conflict. Male and female players alike have toed the line when it comes to the dress codes imposed on them, and others have boycotted tournaments altogether because of the required attire. Throughout the history of professional tennis, the trends of the times have influenced player dress. This makes Serena Williams’s Wakanda-inspired catsuit no more disrespectful of the sport than what tennis stars have worn on the court for more than a century.

Fans defended the catsuit because health factored into why Williams wore it

The idea that Williams disrespected the sport by wearing the bodysuit outraged fans because the tennis star explained that she wore the ensemble both with her health in mind and to inspire mothers. Williams has a history of blood clots and developed one after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis, in September via C-section. She dedicated her Black Panther-inspired catsuit to “all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy.”

“I’ve had a lot of problems with my blood clots,” she said at the French Open. “God, I don’t know how many I’ve had in the past 12 months. I’ve been wearing pants in general a lot when I play, so I can keep the blood circulation going.”

While the ban on such ensembles is still unofficial, Giudicelli’s remark led to backlash. When asked about the catsuit ban, Williams, however, downplayed his remarks.

“I think that obviously the Grand Slams have a right to do what they want to do,” she said.

But for some members of the public, the matter didn’t seem so simple. The suggestion that Serena Williams doesn’t respect the game came across as a microaggression. One of the rare black women to dominate tennis, Williams has faced criticism throughout her career for not looking like the women who’ve traditionally played the sport. Her hair, body, and fashion choices have routinely been scrutinized, often with an undercurrent of race, sex, and class bias.

The Victorian era gave us tennis whites

One reason Giudicelli’s decision to ban Williams’s catsuit has raised eyebrows is because, unlike Wimbledon and its all-white dress code, the French Open has traditionally been a tournament where players can express themselves through fashion. In fact, in 1990 when tournament organizers considered the all-white route, Andre Agassi, known for his colorful ensembles, took offense.

“Somebody doesn’t like me,” he said. “The idea is to make tennis enjoyable for people. Why don’t they take a survey? Instead of asking some old guy behind a desk.”

Tennis player Andre Agassi was known for his colorful tennis attire.
Andre Agassi in 1991. He boycotted Wimbledon because of its all-white dress code.
Hardt/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Tennis whites only became a phenomenon because of Victorian notions of class and hygiene. The sport first caught on in class-conscious Victorian England, where white clothing was associated with wealth and privilege. The lower classes, who worked with their hands, couldn’t wear the color without getting dirty. Victorians also believed that wearing white allowed athletes to sweat with little notice, although women tennis players dressed in a manner that prevented them from real physical exertion.

“When Victorian women played tennis in the 1880s and 1890s, they were wearing their street clothes, which included heavy undergarments like corsets, bustles, and petticoats, and voluminous skirts that grazed the ground,” fashion historian Keren Ben-Horin told Allure.

In the 1900s, women tennis players wore “floor-length skirts, stockings, and long-sleeved tops,” according to Allure. But as the decades went on, new fashions dictated what they wore. That meant flapper-inspired tennis attire in the 1920s, and, later, ’50s-style cardigans and ’60s mod.

In the first half of the 20th century, tennis fashion was not without controversy. Skirt lengths shortened, and American tennis player Gertrude Moran faced backlash for wearing a skirt that revealed a pair of lace shorts underneath. Because of the shorts, she was accused of bringing “vulgarity and sin into tennis.”

Tennis player Gussie Moran in 1949.
Gertrude “Gussie” Moran’s lacy shorts caused an uproar in 1949.
George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images

What happened to Moran signaled the kind of treatment other women players would face in the years to come. Despite the criticism she received, Moran is considered one of tennis’s early fashion icons.

A white catsuit makes headlines at Wimbledon

Serena Williams’s catsuit may have caused a sensation at the 2018 French Open, but it wasn’t the first time Williams had worn a catsuit during competition. She also wasn’t the first woman tennis player to wear a full-length bodysuit during a Grand Slam contest. During the first round of the 1985 Wimbledon tournament, tennis star Anne White heeded organizers’ all-white rule but defied tradition by wearing a white catsuit instead of a tennis skirt. White’s opponent, Pam Shriver, insulted White’s spandex suit, calling it the “most bizarre, stupid-looking thing I’ve ever seen on a tennis court.” Wimbledon officials apparently agreed and told White not to wear it again to the tournament.

Tennis player Anne White at Wimbledon in 1985.
Tennis player Anne White in a catsuit at Wimbledon in 1985.
Getty Images

But off the court, the 5-foot-11 White won praise for her unconventional fashion choice. Pony, the sportswear company that provided the ensemble, promoted it as the “Perfect 10 White,” and commentators noted that while the average woman could not get away with wearing the bodysuit, White’s long and lean body made her the exception.

As one tennis retailer put it, “It’s attractive, but you have to be built like Anne White is built to wear it. And the rest of the world is not.”

Seventeen years later, when Serena Williams wore a short catsuit to the 2002 US Open, she received a significantly different response. Unlike White, she wasn’t praised as an enviable example of femininity in the suit but instead was slut-shamed, body-shamed, and generally demeaned.

The outfit was described in the press as “clinging,” “ultra-risqué,” “curve-clutching,” and leaving “little to the imagination,” according to Jaime Schultz’s 2005 essay “Reading the Catsuit,” which appeared in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues. Other media outlets pointed out Williams’s “bulging muscles” and “defensive-back physique.” And Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan described her as “a working girl of a different sort,” calling the catsuit “trashy.”

Serena Williams in a bodysuit at the 2002 US Open.
Serena Williams in a short catsuit at the 2002 US Open.
Al Bello/Getty Images

Why did the response to Williams in a catsuit differ markedly from White in one? The former’s race and body type certainly played a role in the remarks, as did class — hence the idea that the Compton-raised Williams dressed in a “trashy” way. Throughout her career, Williams has been subjected to various microaggressions — from spectators, other athletes, and members of the press.

Serena and Venus Williams have been dogged by bias throughout their career

For 14 years, Serena Williams boycotted the Indian Wells tournament. Her decision to skip the event stemmed from her experience there in 2001. At that time, not only were she and her sister Venus Williams booed by spectators, they were also subjected to n-word taunts, her father and then-coach, Richard Williams, told USA Today. One man even remarked, “I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive,” he said. Williams ended her boycott of the tournament in 2015, but Indian Wells is hardly the only event where she’s faced bigotry.

The Williams sisters have repeatedly been compared to animals, characterized as “savage,” or as “pummeling,” “overwhelming,” and “overpowering” their white rivals, Vox pointed out last year. Sometimes, fellow athletes have joined in on such attacks of Serena and Venus. Anna Kournikova reportedly said of the Williamses, “I hate my muscles. I’m not Venus Williams. I’m not Serena Williams. I’m feminine. I don’t want to look like they do. I’m not masculine like they are.” In addition, Chris Evert said that the Williams sisters’ “athletic ability and raw aggression make it hard for the women who aren’t Amazons to compete with them.”

But Caroline Wozniacki stands out as the most egregious offender. During a 2012 exhibition match, the tennis star padded her breasts and bottom in ridicule of Williams’s physique. As she has with Giudicelli’s criticism of her catsuit, Williams downplayed Wozniacki’s mockery, saying, “I don’t think she meant anything racist by it.” She and Wozniacki were reportedly friends.

Although their bodies have drawn unwelcome attention in adulthood, Serena and her sister were often mocked because of their hair as teens. For styling their hair in beaded braids, once a popular style for African-American girls, the sisters were subjected to cruel jokes and criticism about their look. A tennis official penalized Venus Williams when some of her beads slipped out during competition, saying they had caused a disruption.

The Williams sisters as teens.
Serena and Venus Williams as teens with beaded hair.
Getty Images

Having her appearance dissected, ridiculed, and criticized has not been easy, Serena Williams has admitted. She said she even felt insecure because her older sister, also subjected to vicious attacks on her appearance, is leaner.

Given the intense and racialized scrutiny of her appearance throughout her career, Williams’s measured response to criticism of her catsuit is not surprising. She’s experienced this kind of shaming since adolescence, and women tennis players have had their appearances picked apart since the start of the game.

Williams is certainly not the only tennis player who’s refused to play it safe sartorially, but the persistent criticism she’s faced arguably recalls the game’s elitist roots more than any other athlete has. A working-class Brit was never supposed to rise to the top of the sport, let alone a black girl from Compton. Yet motherhood, medical problems, and the microaggressions that have trailed her since her start in the game have not made Williams falter.

Fans surprised that she doesn’t appear outraged by Giudicelli’s callout of her catsuit are likely overlooking how much she has already overcome in her career. But she is talented and self-possessed enough to know that whether she’s in a catsuit, a skirt, or a dress on the court, she’ll persevere.

“Everything will be okay,” Williams assured fans after Giudicelli announced the catsuit ban. And her distinguished career in the face of pervasive attacks on her professionalism, appearance, and upbringing leaves little doubt that she’s right.