Tennis Whites: A Brief History

Learn how the tradition of wearing tennis whites predates the sport itself!

 

Summer is here and tennis-loving fans worldwide are turning their attention to the legendary tournament held annually at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club outside of London. Since the tournament was first held in 1877, all players have been required to wear the traditional tennis whites when playing on these iconic grass courts. In fact, private tennis clubs around the world require their members to don this monochrome uniform to play which begs the question: WHY?

Turns out the tradition of tennis whites long predates the dress code at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. In fact, it even predates the sport of tennis as we know it today! The tradition of wearing all white on court first appeared in 16th century France where jeu de paume, a close cousin of tennis, was originally played on indoor courts. Wealthy participants would play – you guessed it – smartly dressed in all-white.

Before long the French game moved to outdoor courts before finding its way across the English Channel where it evolved into traditional lawn tennis. The tradition of wearing white migrated along with the sport and became an important element in growing the elite nature of this upper-class pastime. Wearing all-white, whether on the court or off, signified privilege and wealth. After all, only those who worked so-called “white-collar” jobs could afford to wear this color and keep it clean all day!

Not only was tennis seen as an activity reserved for the elite, but, since it was co-ed, it became an important social gathering for this class. Tennis was one of the few sports that women were allowed to play in the 19th century, and the tennis court became an important place for social interaction and connection between the sexes. By the 1870s, women’s tennis uniforms emerged, inspired by the popular lawn dress silhouettes but made of lighter fabrics like linen and cotton – in all white, of course. However, these early tennis dresses also featured lace underlays and elaborate embroidery, showing that the main objective was one of fashion rather than performance.

But doesn’t wearing all white keep you cooler? Yes – but there’s more! While wearing all white does reflect the sun and keep you cooler, it also conceals sweat – something that was seen as unseemly and definitively low-class by the elite tennis players of yore. For all these reasons, by the 1890s all-white tennis attire was not only simply the fashion but became the mandate in several private lawn tennis clubs in both England and America.

While tennis is no longer a sport reserved only for the wealthy and elite, the tradition of wearing tennis whites is still alive and well today. Several tennis clubs, especially historic clubs on the east coast of the US and in Europe, still adhere to this tradition and require members to wear all-white when on court. Yes, there are still practical reasons why wearing all-white makes sense in the heat of summer – of course, it still reflects light and keeps you cooler on court. But it’s the rich tradition and history that keeps this custom alive and well in modern-day tennis.

There are many who feel that wearing tennis whites is a way to show respect not only for your opponent but for the history of the game. From shoes to socks, skirts and shorts to tanks and tops, it’s always wise to have a collection of pristine tennis whites ready to go this time of year. Now is the time to stock up on all of your favorite, traditionally-inspired tennis whites with a modern, performance-first twist. Just be careful to keep clean when enjoying your strawberries and cream!