When the big names start their quest for the glory of a singles title on the clay of Paris, most will do so wearing a polo shirt, with many more sporting a bandana. Both items of clothing can be directly traced back to two iconic 1920s French tennis stars.
Although a lot has changed since men competed in long trousers and blazers at the first French Championships in 1891, one thing has remained the same at what is now the French Open: its strong connection to the catwalks of Paris.
‘Tennis fashion has a long history,’ says Roman Stepek, HEAD’s vice president responsible for sportswear. ‘It all started with strong fashion statements and role breaking outfits.
‘Suzanne Lenglen, René Lacoste and Andre Agassi really made some statements on the court, and the brands basically took that and put it into the fashion world.’
With a combined 21 majors in singles, doubles and mixed doubles in the 1920s, Lenglen was the sport’s first global superstar athlete, a woman whose influence is still being felt today.
The first female tennis player to wear a tennis dress with short sleeves, she would enter the court wearing a fur coat. To keep her short black hair in place she donned a headband, which quickly became all the rage in the 1920s and is still being used by club players and Grand Slam winners to this day.
Together with her fellow 1920s French tennis star Lacoste, Lenglen helped popularise a sport that had started as a hobby for the aristocracy in the 1870s.
Nicknamed ‘the crocodile’, Lacoste was one of the four French stars known as the ‘Musketeers’ who dominated the sport in the 1920s and early 1930s. A seven-time major singles champion, Lacoste patented his own iconic polo shirt. Almost a century later, the polo shirt is still worn by millions of people – some of whom may never have even set foot on a tennis court.
Other trendsetters included the British tennis star Bunny Austin, who shocked the tennis establishment in 1933 when he swapped what he called ‘sweat-sodden cricket flannels’ for a pair of shorts. The rest of the men’s draw – and some women – soon followed.
No designer had more influence on the world of tennis than the British couturier Ted Tinling. No fewer than 12 female Wimbledon winners between 1959 and 1979 wore his outfits while the frilly, colourful underwear he designed for Gussie Moran in 1949 and Anne White's all-white body suit in 1985 raised many an eyebrow at Wimbledon.
Although tennis had been mostly played in white by club players and pros in the first half of the 20th century, that all changed with the arrival of colour television. In 1972, the International Lawn Tennis Federation allowed yellow tennis balls to be used for official competition (as an alternative to white) because television viewers could see them better.
Although the ‘almost all white’ clothing rule remains to this day at Wimbledon, colours soon exploded on the Parisian clay.
The predominantly white tennis dresses of the 1970s were replaced by colourful skirts and tops in the 1980s while the 1990s were all about the emergence of new, lightweight and easy-to-wear fabrics and bright colours.
No player embodied this trend more than Agassi, whose fluorescent cycling shorts underneath stone-washed denim hot pants combined with colourful bandanas worn in Paris in the early 1990s helped turn him into one of the sport’s biggest names.
This century, players and designers have very much remained at the forefront of fashion on the Parisian clay. Just look at Rafael Nadal’s sleeveless tops and pirate shorts in 2005, Maria Sharapova’s elegant navy-style dress inspired by Lenglen in 2008, and Venus Williams’ much-talked-about lacy Moulin Rouge-inspired outfit in 2010.
After neon colours and zebra-style outfits dominated the 2016 clay-court season, the colour schemes in Paris this year will be a little more understated. ‘At HEAD this year, it’s all about sophisticated colours such as navy with silver or gold, and blue tones mixed with grey, silver or gold tones,’ said Stepek.
With sportswear now being worn not only on the sports field but also in the street, the quality and feel of the fabric has become increasingly important for fans as well as athletes.
‘Perfect-fitting sportswear paired with high functional material is so essential to the performance of each athlete,’ adds Stepek. ‘Today it’s important that the clothes are lightweight, stretchable and breathable.’
And what better place to look for the latest trends than when the tennis community assembles in Paris? ‘Tenniswear is a perfect mix of elegance and performance,’ says Roman Stepek. ‘It’s always a snapshot of the current Zeitgeist.’