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Serving Style: Wimbledon's Enduring Elegance

Posted 26.06.15  - Style

"Competitors must be dressed in suitable tennis attire that is almost entirely white, and this applies from the point at which the player enters the court surround… A single trim of colour… is acceptable but must be no wider than 10mm."

Even for an organisation with a title as punctilious as The All-England Lawn Tennis And Croquet Club, the dress code for players at Wimbledon, tightened up in 2014, is impressively restrictive. It was not always thus.

For decades after the first Wimbledon tournament in 1877, there was no need for clothing rules - players simply wore what everyone did for summer sport, be it cricket, croquet or tennis: white flannel trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. The only sartorial difference between the gentlemen on court and those in the stands was that the competitors had taken off their ties, blazers and boaters and rolled up their sleeves.

As the athleticism of players improved, this attire became too restrictive. In 1928, a Frenchman won his second Wimbledon in a new shirt of his own design: piqué cotton, short-sleeved, and flat-fronted with a buttoned placket… and a crocodile on the breast. René Lacoste had invented the polo shirt and went into production on his retirement in 1933. A year later, Briton Fred Perry won the first Wimbledon title of his three-in-a-row, and in the late 1940s, followed Lacoste into polo-shirt design.

Bunny Austin is usually credited as the first man to break with the other major tradition and wear shorts at Wimbledon, in 1933, but in fact he was only the first to do so on Centre Court. Three years earlier, Brame Hillyard had sported shorts on an outside court. Who was this young rebel? A 54-year-old from Darlington who was still playing, 27 years after his best result: reaching the quarter-final, in 1903."

"With those two restrictions gone, men have, on the whole, been content to toe the baseline, while their female counterparts have stretched the rules to break point. In 1949, 'Gorgeous Gussie' Moran wore a short skirt with integral pants - the All England Club said she had brought 'vulgarity and sin' into tennis. In the 1970s, Chris Evert revealed frilly knickers, Linda Siegel's Farrah Fawcett-style halter-top was a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen and Sue Barker took short tennis dresses to the levels of 'that poster'. In 1985, Anne White wore a spandex jumpsuit. And in recent times the Williams sisters seem to have taken restrictions as simply a design brief for their own labels to work around.

For men, variety came in the 1970s, as colour TV and the professional era offered a showcase for sportswear manufacturers - even after the introduction of the 'predominantly white' rule in 1963. The slim-fit striped Fila shirts of Bjorn Borg and others has become shorthand for tennis apparel (as featured in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums), in conjunction with his headband - a style he shared with his great rival John McEnroe, and which was brought to its conclusion by Pat Cash's chequerboard bandana.


While Andre Agassi was renowned for outfits including cut-off jeans over fluorescent cycling shorts (shiver) at other tournaments, he followed the rules in SW19. The most experimental player of recent times has been Rafael Nadal, who - having once introduced capri pants to Centre Court - is set to return to 1980s Boris Becker-style short-shorts for the 2015 tournament.

In the same year the All England tightened rules for players, it eased those for spectators in debenture seats. Previously, gentlemen were required to wear a lounge suit or tailored jacket, shirt, tie, trousers and dress shoes. Now, jeans (except torn jeans), ‘clean’ trainers and T-shirts are allowed. Look at a photograph of Centre Court even in the 1960s and you’ll see suits and hats in almost every seat. These days the spirit of People's Sunday and Henman Hill - fancy dress, face paints and tipsy friends sitting together with T-shirts spelling GO ADNY! - has taken hold… with notable exceptions.

In 2013, Bradley Cooper and Gerard Butler watched Andy Murray win the men's singles in, respectively, a light-grey summer suit and a powder-blue blazer over white trousers. And, if Roger Federer, the most vocal opponent of the new rules for players, is able to wear a monogrammed blazer on to the court, the rest of us should at least manage a handmade shirt. And Turnbull & Asser customers know that if you're allowed a centimetre of colour, you can take a mile."

Chris Madigan - Author for Brummell

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