Serena Williams called it her Black Panther suit. Custom designed with Nike to prevent blood clots — the health condition that nearly killed Williams after she gave birth to her daughter — Williams said the full-length black catsuit made her “feel like a superhero.”
The French Tennis Federation called it disrespectful. In an interview with Tennis Magazine last week, FTF president Bernard Giudicelli announced they will be changing the French Open’s dress code going forward. “Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted,” he said. “One must respect the game and the place.”
Williams, for her part, seems unbothered. Responding to the comments on Saturday, Williams said she has a good relationship with Giudicelli and is confident they would come to an understanding. “If they know that some things are for health reasons, then there’s no way they wouldn’t be okay with it,” she said. At the U.S. Open last night, Williams was in dominant form — and back in stand-out style. For first-round win over Poland's Magda Linette, she wore a black, one-sleeve tutu designed by Virgil Abloh.
Williams's singular on-court style often feels like a metaphor for all the other ways she is singular: the world's best player and the black star of an overwhelmingly white, historically exclusionary sport. So to fans and observers, the catsuit ban was the latest instance of Williams facing racial discrimination within a sport she has single-handedly propelled forward. From racist slurs at Indian Wells to disproportionate drug testing to comments comparing her to an animal or a man, the sport continually sends the message that Williams doesn’t belong. Her strong black body — now uncovered by a skirt — seems to be perceived as a threat to tennis’ status quo.
The FTF’s updated dress code reflects a troubling desire to uphold ideas about respectability and femininity — white femininity, specifically — in women’s sports, a tradition that dates back more than a century in the US. In the beginning of the twentieth century, women’s participation in sports was dictated by the “skirt theory:” the only sports acceptable for women were ones they could play without wearing pants. The 1914 Olympic Committee opposed “women taking part in any event in which they could not wear long skirts.”
Sports like golf, archery, and croquet were most popular, but women managed to play baseball in full-length skirts, as well as ice skate. In the 1870s, then women’s college Vassar's baseball team, the Resolutes played the game in the era's cumbersome fashion.
As long as women continued to play in skirts, the thinking went, white men didn’t need to fear white women had abandoned their feminine duties to live like men. We see remnants of this thinking today: just last year, Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons responded to what he perceived as a “softening” of baseball rules by saying that his team might as well “come out wearing dresses” next game. His commentary ties into patriarchal ideas about femininity and weakness, yes, but also the notion that anyone who plays in skirts could not also be considered a serious athlete.
Women took it upon themselves to shorten their skirts, giving them the freedom of movement to compete at higher levels. In the 1920s, Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie scandalized the skating community when she shortened her skirt to her knees, allowing her to spin and jump like the male skaters did. When the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League came around in 1943, women were again required to wear skirts to play baseball — though they were much shorter now.
Still, the skirts were not ideal for sliding, a problem made famous by the film A League of Their Own. But the short skirt or skort became entrenched as the female uniform for sports — in spite of the obvious impracticality. Until recently, even female boxers were asked to wear skirts.
Today, dress codes for many women’s sports are being policed by two seemingly opposed forces — modesty and objectification. Either cover up your body because it’s inappropriate or a distraction, or reveal almost all of it because female athletes are primarily here for men’s pleasure. Ever since women’s sports began to be televised (though, it should be noted, still at a rate far less than men’s sports), the age-old demand for female modesty was met with a new demand to draw in audiences.
Forced sexiness is no less sexist than forced modesty. In sports like track and field, gymnastics and volleyball, skimpy uniforms can prevent players who dress modestly, like Muslim athletes, from participating. It was 2004 before the International Skating Union did away with the rule that “ladies must wear skirts” and in 2012, the International Volleyball Federation finally stopped requiring that female volleyball players wear bikinis, which many people saw as a sexist rule. Meanwhile, women in culturally conservative sports like tennis and golf must try to walk the line between attracting audiences and distracting them.
These dress codes are not so different than the controversial school dress codes in place for girls. They use arbitrary moral standards to control women’s bodies and expression — privileging onlookers’ opinions over those of the women wearing the clothes. Last year, the LPGA released a new dress code that has been criticized as slut-shaming. It includes guidelines like “Length of skirt, skort, and shorts MUST be long enough to not see your bottom area… at any time, standing or bent over” and “plunging necklines are NOT allowed.” Rarely, in discussing women’s dress codes, do we discuss what’s distracting for the athletes.
When it comes to sports, safety and function need to come into play when choosing uniforms. But all too often morals and prejudice are the deciding factors. Williams was not the first female tennis player to attempt to buck tradition with a bodysuit. In 1985, Anne White wore a white, full-length version to Wimbledon. Her opponent complained, she was not allowed to wear it again the next day, and news coverage was dominated by stories about her clothing. The chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, released a statement that said, in part, "The rules state that clothes must be predominantly white and constitute 'normal tennis attire.' Anne's outfit was certainly all white but could hardly be called normal tennis attire.”
Calling Williams’s catsuit “disrespectful” harkens back to racist and sexist ideas about what female athletes should be: white, feminine, and unserious. When athletes don’t conform to the these ideals that still dominate the sports landscape, they are criticized or, as in Williams’s case, accused of not honoring the culture of the game. But Williams’s influence, her outspokenness, and her on-court performances are the biggest selling points the sport of tennis has. Tennis has Williams — considered by many to be the greatest athlete ever — to thank for all the headlines generated by her talent and her personality.
By banning her catsuit, the powers that be sent the message that upholding the status quo matters more than respecting their star athlete. By winning 6-4, 6-0 in a headline-making tutu — black-designed, over-the-top feminine, and dead serious — Williams reminded us why she's still the star.
This story first appeared on ELLE.com.
For more Fashion, head here.