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Tennis Whites: A Brief History

For many of us, as the summer weather begins to emerge, at some point our thoughts will turn to lively afternoon tennis matches on a luxury holiday estate. If you are a fan of the game, there surely is no better way to spend an afternoon than in one’s tennis whites, battling it out with a few good friends. Yet few of us ever really take the time to ponder exactly why we wear traditional white on the tennis court. Certainly, there are other, more pragmatic colours a person could wear for the sport; particularly if the court belonging to your chosen luxury holiday estate is of the clay variety. Despite this, the tradition lives-on in a majority of elite tennis clubs and grand-slam tournaments the world over.

The tradition of wearing tennis whites began with the origination of tennis in 16th century France. In these early days, the game was often played on an indoor court, but later evolved into an outdoor sport. By the 1800s, lawn tennis had been adopted by the English, and spread like wildfire throughout the Commonwealth, along with the British Empire. Thereafter, the appeal of tennis quickly spread around Europe and the Americas.

At the beginning, tennis was a sport associated with money and privilege, and dressing in tennis whites was a way for the elite to identity other members of their privileged, tennis-playing tribe. Wearing all-white was certainly not something that people working in coal mines or sweeping-up would ever be able to do; in many cases it signified the luxury of not having to work at all, and therefore quickly became an emblem of sport for the elite, and something the middle classes aspired to.

In 1890, the elite’s affection for all-white tennis dress was made into an official rule; Wimbledon mandated that all players were to wear white when playing on their courts. Being the last of the private tennis clubs that still hosts a grand slam tournament, Wimbledon still holds steadfast to this sporting tradition.

Some of the most memorable photographs of the evolution of tennis whites are of women playing the game at the turn of the century. Up until that time, clothing, particularly women’s clothing, was more akin to architecture; all whale bone corsets and layer upon layer of stiff underskirts. Though by today’s standards, the tennis clothes of the time would seem claustrophobic (if not downright oppressive), for the times, they allowed a freedom of movement that had yet to be introduced into the sartorial vernacular. The ever-present white colour still played a role in signifying class and privilege, but the sport was beginning to reach a wider audience. Additionally, wearing all white also meant that players could stay cooler longer due to the light-reflecting properties of the white garments.

In many circles, tennis is still thought of as a pastime of the elite. However, with the broader appeal of the sport and celebrity status of today’s tennis stars, the wearing of tennis whites seems to have transcended social boundaries, instead giving us a mechanism by which to show our respect for our opponents, as well as the game itself.