Early Tennis Fashion Did Not Stop First Female Wimbledon Winner

Cyclists were still fighting for the right to wear bloomers. The concept of “rational dress” for female athletes remained fertile ground for debate in all sports including tennis. Despite cumbersome early tennis fashion, women were emerging as a force on the court. Then in July 1884, Maud Edith Eleanor Watson became the first female Wimbledon Winner.

From the time Walter Wingfield defined the rules of contemporary “lawn tennis” in 1873, the game became hugely popular for both men and women. Tennis spread quickly from Europe to America. Wingfield proclaimed the sport was appropriate for men and women alike even though it involved physical exertion and some strength.

As with other developing sports, women were expected to wear a version of their street clothes. Proper outfits included floor-sweeping skirts, petticoats and high-necked blouses with long sleeves, stockings, bustles and tight corsets. Range of motion and comfort were unimportant when propriety was at stake.

In addition to looking like ladies, women had to play like ladies. According to Nancy Fix Anderson in The Sporting Life: Victorian Sports And Games:

“Girls and women at first were advised to play cooperatively, hitting the ball to their opponent, rather than the more male way of a competitive contest…Although young girls could play in shorter, calf-length skirts, women were expected to keep even their ankles covered.”(p. 116)

Maud Edith Eleanor Watson Became First Woman Wimbledon Winner in July, 1884

Fortunately, emerging female athletes redefined ladylike behavior on the court.

The establishment in 1877 of a national men’s championship at Wimbledon (the All-England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club) transformed the game from a lawn party pastime into a competitive sport. Women were included at Wimbledon in July 1884.

Maud Edith Eleanor Watson (October 9, 1864 to June 5, 1946) started competing in various tournaments when she was sixteen years old. Like all players of her day, she wore long wool skirts, a small bustle and a long-sleeved jersey. Many females wore popular colors of the day, but she chose to wear white with a small sailor hat.

Undefeated in tournaments, she entered Wimbledon in 1884 when she was nineteen. Thirteen women competed.  Watson won against her sister Lilian Watson (6-8. 6-3, 6-3). The prize was a silver flower vase. She won Wimbledon again in 1885. Wimbledon tournaments have captivated audience ever since.

According to Alan Little, honorary librarian of the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, Watson had developed an all-around game, which had no apparent weaknesses.

“She had an ideal temperament and her cool, quiet concentration often upset her more excitable opponents. Her over-arm service gave her an edge over most opponents, who were wary of her volleying and driving ability. Her judgment was excellent for she was able to discover her opponent’s weak points very early and take advantage of these to the utmost, while her behavior on court was an example to all.”

Despite Early Tennis Fashion, Ladies Crushed The Ball

Many women transitioned from genteel games of lawn tennis to more brutal competitions.

“Even though women’s matches were limited to three sets in contrast to the five sets for men…women were able to compete fully as trained and skilled athletes, in the full glare of public view. Despite criticisms for their appearance ‘as competitors for prizes in the full blaze of publicity at such places as Wimbledon…to be scrutinized, be on, and applauded by crowds of strangers,’ women continued to compete and with ever-increasing athletic skill. In so doing, even wearing modest skirted dress, they challenged not only their opponents, but also, fundamentally, the basic precepts of Victorian gender ideology.” (The Sporting Life by Nancy Fix Anderson; p. 117)

As a side note, competition among women in all walks of life was widely discouraged. In 1889 Elizabeth Bisland initially rejected the idea of competing in a race around the world with her rival, Nellie Bly. She soon embraced the competitive spirit and launched on a high-speed experimental mail train heading in the opposite direction to challenge Bly.

Lottie Dod Won Wimbledon Five Times

Lottie Dod (September 24, 1871 – June 27, 1960) scored her first win at Wimbledon when she was fifteen years old in 1887. She claimed a total of five Wimbledon wins. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Dod is the most versatile athlete of all time, setting records in field hockey, golf and archery in addition to tennis.

Dod did not follow the crowd that discouraged women from playing in a competitive manner. She believed that women should be less ladylike when playing a sport. “As a rule, ladies are too lazy at tennis,” she said. “Instead of running hard, they go a few steps and exclaim, ‘Oh, I can’t’ and stop.” (Royal London.com )

As women like Dod and Watson triumphed in their sport, early tennis fashion began to adapt to their athletic needs.

Juliette Atkinson wrote in the Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin of January 14, 1897:

“Some years ago it was thought that almost anything would do for a tennis costume; and the result was sometimes appalling. The player of today has rather more idea of the fitness of things, and does not appear on the courts in a woolen skirt, too long and much too heavy, a waist that certainly was never intended for the tennis court, and an absurd little visored cap that neither shelters from the sun nor adds to the appearance. In fact, quite as much thought should be given to the tennis dress as to the wheeling costume. Common sense and neatness are the best guides in selecting one’s tennis suit.”(p. 1)

Early Tennis Fashion Dominated The International Olympics, 1900

The first modern International Olympics were held in Athens, Greece in 1896 with no female competitors. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee believed that female athletes would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect. But in 1900, a few early female Olympians got through the door to compete in five sports in which their legs could be “aesthetically” covered by long skirts.

The Games of the II Olympiad were part of the Paris Exposition Universelle–the World’s Fair, held between May 14 and October 28, 1900. Twenty-two brave women competed in tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf.

Despite limitations of their irrational clothing, these early female Olympians showed the committee once and for all that women were at least as exciting to watch as the boys.

Out of 997 athletes, women represented 2.2%.

 Suzanne Lenglen Rejected Early Tennis Fashion

In the 1920s, flamboyant French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen broke tradition.

Considered by some to be one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, she appeared on the tennis court at Wimbledon in an outlandish outfit. Her arms were bare and the hem of her skirt kissed her knees instead of the ground. Instead of a hat, she wore a flapper headband.

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