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"Breaking" the Dress Code

Analysis of gendered sports uniforms

Published onDec 01, 2022
"Breaking" the Dress Code

This exploration of female sportswear not only exhibits the countless uniform regulations that blatantly display gender bias throughout history, but also serves as an analysis of societal reactions, acceptance, and demonstrations of defiance. While the high fashion industry aims to break down gender norms in clothing, athletic wear has long been weighed down by strict regulations varying across different sports games, specifically the tennis tournament circuit (U.S Open, Wimbledon etc). Competitive athletes have attempted to incorporate strategic styling choices into their uniform for decades but female athletes have been particularly discouraged and criticized for doing so time and time again. Throughout history renowned female tennis players are blatantly labeled “vulgar” and “attention seekers” for competing in tennis attire that is functional but also incorporates intentional stylistic choices that are considered to be “breaking” the dress code. 

Wimbledon Dress Code 

The Wimbledon Championships is greatly known for their strict tennis attire rules that have virtually remained unchanged for decades. The most important rule being that one must wear “suitable tennis attire that is almost entirely white” while on the playing court1. Cream or Off-White is not permitted. Even the soles and laces of the shoes must be white however, there are certain exceptions that apply to necklines, logos, trimming etc. Although this main rule remains in place today, other rules have shifted throughout the years with the overarching question of “what constitutes suitable attire?”. 

Gussie Moran 

Examples of prominent female tennis players and their controversial tennis uniforms demonstrates how the response to this question has evolved over the years. One of the first women to spark the uniform debate is Gertrude ‘Gussie’ Moran, who was a prime example of what did not constitute “suitable tennis attire” in the year 1949. Gussie Moran, ranked 4th in the nation, attracted worldwide attention with her tennis attire worn at the 1949 Wimbledon tournament. While she adhered to the all white attire rule, it was the promiscuity of her outfit that shocked Wimbledon officials and the general public. Her uniform was designed by Teddy Tinling, English designer, which famously featured a “short skirt” with “silk jersey panties” that had two inches of lace trimming. In 1949, Moran’s skirt was considered short because it did not cover her knees but she stated in The Times that it “allowed her to move more freely on the court”2

Gussie Moran is pictured playing at Wimbledon in her controversial tennis attire in 1949 | Photo by George W. Hales/Fox Photos, via The New York Times

Moran won the 1949 match but it wasn’t her success that swarmed the news, it was her clothing. She had gained headlines in the New York Times stating “Gorgeous Gussie’s Lace-Fringed Panties No. 1 Attraction on Wimbledon’s Courts”, completely undermining her performance in the tournament.3 Following the scandal surrounding Moran’s style choices, Wimbledon revised their strict rules banning short skirts and dresses and had even gone as far as to accuse her of “bringing vulgarity and sin into tennis.”4 Other acclaimed tennis tournaments followed like what is now known as the U.S Open banned low necklines and lace underwear. It is important to note that female tennis players are more likely to be called out for “breaking” the dress code than their male counterparts. In this matter ”it’s impossible to separate out fashion from the broader issues around gender” and the related social and political contexts.5 Gender bias found in clothing that supports the policing of women and their personal expression of femininity is not only found in sports but in every aspect of life. Moran’s Wimbledon scandal ruined her professional career and tainted her image, her success had been clouded by the public perception of being a sex symbol. 

Anne White 

Another famous example of a violation of Wimbledon’s strict dress code was Anne White’s decision to wear a catsuit in the 1985 Wimbledon tournament against Pam Shriver. During the first round of the tournament, White was given an ultimatum by the referee, Alan Mills. Either she was forced to change out of her catsuit or she would be be prohibited from playing in the game at all. In response, White said, “You've certainly made your point,” emphasizing the unfair request.6 Anne’s choice of dress was not meant to stir up press and get a reaction out of people, yet it was intentionally designed for White by Pony, a popular tennis uniform supplier. Anne provided her own input in the design process as she was looking for an outfit to keep her warm during the game. More specifically, it was designed to keep her legs warm with a long pant legging material and leg warmers. Typical female tennis uniforms like tennis skirts and skorts didn't offer her the same protection against the cold weather. Furthermore, she emphasized that most of her training was done wearing muscle tights at home which was most practical for her and therefore more comfortable to compete in. 

Anne White is pictured playing tennis with a racket in hand and in her famous white jumpsuit and leg warmers.

Anne White in her famous white jumpsuit at Wimbledon 1985 | Photo by Nils Jorgen/Rex Features, via

The reaction following Anne White’s outfit at the Wimbledon tournament was thought to be very controversial with negative remarks circulating in the media. She was called out for dressing inappropriately because it didn’t fall in line with the tennis uniform rules. The Wimbledon tournament dress code in 1985 stated that “clothes must be predominantly white and constitute normal tennis attire.”7 So the question still remains, “what constitutes normal tennis attire?” 

During the tournament the audience was reportedly hooting, hollering, and whistling as if scandal had erupted but White was just wearing a catsuit that notably covered her entire body. People were upset that she had intentionally disregarded traditional uniform attire although it technically did not break the dress code. Nonetheless, White was slandered in the media for  “wearing the most bizarre, stupid-looking thing [one has] ever seen on a tennis court” as stated by her opponent, Pam Shriver.8 White was very outspoken about the catsuit’s functionality and seemed to disagree that her outfit was in violation of tennis uniform rules when she stated “everyone is entitled to their own opinion and what I think is proper and helps me may not be the same for someone else.”9 Although she was not necessarily sexualized for her style choices, she was reprimanded for wearing something functional and protective. Competitive female athletes are unable to dress comfortably without being challenged and publicly shamed.

What is considered appropriate today may have not been forty years ago yet women continue to be governed by sexist uniform policies on the court. Serena Williams’s catsuit ban at the 2018 French Open serves as a great example of the reinforced gender bias that persists today.10 Professional female athletes continue to publicly challenge traditional sports attire by incorporating personal style choices while also attempting to dismantle long-established gender norms surrounding sports uniforms.

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