Talent eclipsed by dress code?

Talent eclipsed by dress code?

Serena Williams’ custom-made black catsuit sparked a debate about clothing choices of women athletes

In the world of sports, long dominated by men, one of the many stumbling blocks women athletes have to overcome is the choice of clothing.

Recently, ace tennis player Serena Williams wore a custom-made black Nike bodysuit at the French Open. She has previously indicated that a choice to wear pants stemmed from a complicated delivery; the clothing helped ease the blood clots in her body.

However, in a subsequent interview, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli said the bodysuit will be barred under a new dress code. Saying that “it went too far”, he added, “One must respect the game and the place.” The backlash was swift and severe with several tennis greats calling the ban illogical and short-sighted.

This is not the first time that female players at Wimbledon have come under fire for wearing clothes considered too modern, immodest, revealing or ‘unfeminine’ for their times. 

Suzanne Lenglen was already a sensation when she walked onto the court at the first post-war Wimbledon in 1919. However the French player shocked onlookers with her brief costume — a simple frock with short sleeves and a skirt reaching only to the calves, coupled with white stockings and a floppy hat. To put things in perspective, her opponent, Dorothea Lambert Chambers, a seven-times champion, wore an ankle length Edwardian skirt and a shirt fastened at the neck and wrists. Lenglen won the game.

American tennis player Gertrude Moran drew gasps in 1949 in Wimbledon with a display of her frilly, lace knickers. This was a time when it was the norm for women tennis players to wear knee-length skirts. The All England Club, which runs Wimbledon, accused her of bringing ‘vulgarity and sin into tennis’.

American tennis player Karol Fageros wore gold lame underpants to the French Open in 1958 and was banned from competing at the upcoming Wimbledon tournament due to this. She was reinstated at Wimbledon after agreeing to cover the gold up with white lace.

In 1972, American tennis player Rosemary Casals had to change out of a dress (white with purple letters) during a Wimbledon match as it was found to violate the tournament’s strict dress code. 

American tennis player Bethanie Mattek-Sands wore a white Alex Noble jacket that was covered in real tennis balls. She was given a warning for dressing in a manner deemed unsuitable, even though she told the officials she was not going to be playing in it.

Anne White’s all-white bodysuit with long sleeves courted controversy in 19858 when her opponent, Pam Shriver, claimed that the outfit had distracted her into losing. The All England Club later found the outfit to be unfit for competition.

Many women players wore a Babydoll dress, designed by Nike, in Wimbledon in 2016. The billowy outfit caused many of them to struggle while playing and Nike quickly called back the dress for alterations as per Wimbledon rules.


Short and sweet for him
In 2004, Joseph Sepp Blatter, then President of FIFA, suggested that women should play football in more ‘feminine clothing’. “They could, for example, have tighter shorts,” he said. We leave the resultant uproar to your imagination.


For the love of viewership
The 2012 London Olympics saw many such suggestions, aimed to revive flagging interest in sports.
The Amateur International Boxing Association wanted female boxers to wear skirts in the ring rather than trunks. The idea was intended to help TV viewers distinguish women from men. (Say what?)

The Badminton World Federation also faced severe criticism for a new dress code that required female players to wear skirts instead of shorts; a move to attract more fans through “a stylish presentation of the players.” Severe protests saw skirts being made optional.

In contrast, beach volleyball players competing in the Olympics were allowed to cover up in more modest shorts and sleeved tops, instead of the usual bikinis. The change was made out of respect for the cultural beliefs of some participating countries.


Creating history
In 2016, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim woman athlete competing for America to wear a hijab during the Rio Olympics. Subsequently, Nike launched a made-for-athletes hijab.



It was an acrimonious end to the prestigious US Open when Naomi Osaka’s historical win was overshadowed by overall favourite Serena Williams’ outbursts at the umpire.

Serena accused umpire Carlos Ramos of sexism after she was handed a series of code violations during the match.
Ramos first gave Serena a code violation warning when he said that she was receiving hand signals from her coach in the stands. This was followed by a  point penalty for smashing her racket, followed by a game penalty for verbal abuse after she confronted the umpire.

The aftermath — Serena broke out in tears after her rant and an equally incensed crowd booed as the trophy was presented to Osaka. The row refuses to die down as the entire sporting world has now taken sides. 

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