Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The politics of tennis fashion

"When you’re looking good on court, you play better."
Caroline Wozniacki

Wozniacki, whose outfits are designed by Stella McCartney, may indeed play better when she believes she is looking good. 

But--Wozniacki's statement aside--what is "looking good"? The unrecognizable, air-brushed clones on the tour site? The women whose faces and bodies (and skin color) conform to the culture's definition of "feminine beauty"?

The world number 2 now uses the "f" word in just about every interview she gives. Practically the first words out of her mouth when she arrived in Charleston were "I like to look feminine." Fashion does play a (minor) role in tennis, and players like Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova, who have outfits designed for them (in Sharapova's case, she's part of the design team) definitely add interest to the entertainment side of the sport. Who of us doesn't have memories of some of the outfits worn by players like Sharapova, Rosie Casals and Serena Williams? Fashion plays a role in the ATP, too, thought perhaps not as big a role. Seeing what the players are wearing adds to the fun of being a spectator.

I remember, a few years ago, Daniela Hantuchova ackowledged that she liked to do fashion shoots, but that she didn't want her clothing to be an issue when she was on the court because she didn't think people should be distracted from the tennis by looking at the players' outfits.

Of course, there are many points of view to be taken about fashion and tennis. Top players often enjoy selecting their outfits for tournaments. Venus Williams designs her own outfits. A top 20 player does have a public image, and it seems reasonable to assume that she would enjoy dressing for tennis. (Players ranked lower than that might enjoy dressing for tennis, too; top 20 is an arbitrary number.) There are fans who care about what players wear, and fans who do not. On-court outfits can reflect players' personal styles and provide fans with insights into the players' different personalities.

Fashion is an important part of life for many people in the world. Looking one's best or expressing one's creativity through clothing and accessories is certainly an option for professional sportswomen, and one that many fans enjoy. But the need to be considered "feminine" is a particular issue for women in sports. Wozniacki is not the only player to emphasize that she "likes" being "feminine." The U.S. press made Chris Evert the un-Navratilova every chance it got. Evert was (to sportswriters) "girly," and Navratilova was a muscle-bound female who was also that dreaded entity--a lesbian. Nothing has changed. (A couple of years ago, in the U.K., a program was developed to encourage girls to play tennis because of the sport's "glamour" side.)

Just today, on a Web forum, I saw a comment in which someone referred to a tour player--as "masculine." This obsession with feminine and not-feminine puts additional pressure on young players who may not yet have strong self-identities, and it reifies the notion that only certain characteristics pass as "feminine"--not to mention, the notion that those characteristics are desirable, and other characteristics are undesirable.

You don't hear messages from the players or the press that ATP stars look "masculine." Players on the women's tour should also be able to enjoy expressing themselves--or not--through fashion, without being concerned about the concept of culturally defined femininity. In both pro tennis and pro golf, the constant assurances we hear that the women are feminine creates a standard for dress and behavior that isolates players who do not possess the "right" look. And it also puts pressure on those who do possess "the look" to be ambassadors for an arbitrary societal standard.


Todd Spiker said...

You don't hear much about ATP fashion, but it should be noted that the last few years (led by Nadal, who has since gone away from it) many more men have gone the sleeveless route, and at least some have inferred from that that they might be trying to show off their muscled arms... in effect, wanting to "look good." Unlike with the women's outfits, there's only so much that can be done with what the men wear.

But throw in additional things like Verdasco's recent underwear ads, and there has been some crossover on the men's tour when it comes to fashion, off-court advertising and on-court body presentation.

Just an interesting occurrence, I thought.

Diane said...

I agree.

And then there is all the attention--much of it negative--paid to Federer's Wimbledon outfits. And the decision by Nadal to wear pink, which really brought the crazies out. And, of course, his capri pants caused a stir when he arrived on the tour.

Sunny said...

One thing that has to be said is that Wozniacki might have to sound the way she does because she does have to "sell" McCartney's dresses. But on certain blogs I here guys talking about beautiful players they love to watch, outfits of the players, and how so and so might be a lesbian because she looks masculine or isn't dressed up. All these kinds of comments show that the fashion side of tennis does not fit with the athlete side. They are ATHLETES-we should be looking at how they play, not their outfits. At least Federer doesn't play in his long pants and jackets at WImby. Wozniacki associated playing well with looking well. There are plenty of women on the tour who have played well and played in traditional tennis fare such as Henin and Clijsters. And speaking of tennis skirts, why have them to begin with, I mean some of these women have "shorts" underneath that look like underwear-I guess it is feminine to have people look up your skirt. Again there are bad comments to blogs out there. Shorts make more sense to me. I shouldn't say anymore because I have a strong reaction to this topic

Diane said...

"I guess it is feminine to have people look up your skirt..."

That made me laugh, even though I know you are quite serious in what you're saying. The tennis skirt, I think, is part of tennis tradition, just as polo shirts are a part of golf tradition. The outfits change, but the skirts remain.

I think more players used to wear shorts than do now; I don't know why. It really is kind of silly to have women wear skirts when they play a sport, even if those skirts do not in any way hamper their movement, as they did in the very old days.

I enjoy seeing the different outfits; in fact, I frequently like some of the journeywomen's outfits, especially the old-school clothes. But I don't look at someone's outfit and judge how "feminine" she is.

Part of the problem about the comments you see is that so many people still have ridiculous notions about what people of different sexual orientations are supposed to look like.

Karen said...

Apart from tennis, netball is another sport where skirts are still worn. As someone who follows that sport avidly and used to play, we were always required to wear 'bloomers" under our skirts. I think with the fashion change athletes now wear what are euphemistically called "tennis panties". The same thing has happened to netball. In athletics you find that a lot athletes now wear these skin tight outfits that leave very little to the imagination. I think a lot of the sports clothes that are being worn now are not so much about how you look in them but the makers say it is all about enhancing performance. If you look at track and field athletes these days, especially sprinters you will see that most of the clothes that they wear now are designed to cut down on wind resistance, hence athletes are better able to accelerate faster. Look at clips of athletes from the 70s, 80s and even 90s, when they ran they had all these little things going on with their clothes, the wind was pulling their clothes in different directions. Now when an athlete puts his or her head down it is all about using everything that they have within them to beat all the natural resistance that is out there. It is the same technology that is used in racing cars. The slimmer the car the faster it is.

Diane said...

That's a good point, Karen. Look at all the changes in swimwear, too, for those who compete in both swimming and diving. All designed to give you that extra half-second.

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