I See London, but Venus is in France

[Amy Bass, Morphizm]
I distinctly remember the first time I asked my mother why her underwear was showing. She was about to leave for her weekly tennis game, and I was likely somewhere around seven years of age, when showing one’s underpants was a really big deal.

“It’s my tennis skirt,” she answered, demonstrating how the undies were stitched to the white pleated skirt that (barely) covered them. It was my mother, so that was good enough for me. She would never go out in anything deemed inappropriate.

That said, down the road, I myself always opted for shorts when I had my Miami tennis lessons, but I also knew that this was frowned upon on the pro circuit, where barely-there dresses and skirts were considered acceptable, inexplicably a required part of the very patrician dress code of the sport. To be sure, tennis isn’t the last of the sports to require skirts –field hockey and lacrosse, for example, do so on the high school and college levels – but aside from figure skating, which has its own set of subjective problems that make costume integral to winning, tennis is the last of the professional athletic realms where women still don feminine garb to play hard.

Of course, tennis has stiff rules for its men, also. My beloved Andre Agassi couldn’t even participate at Wimbledon until he gave up his usual neon garb, an affront that truly insulted my post-punk teenage sensibilities, and Rafel Nadal’s sleeveless shirts have certainly been criticized for the working-class ethos they bring to the inarguably high-class sport.

But women seem to cause far more of a reaction when they step outside of the box in the tennis world. In 1985, for example, one might have thought that Anne White had fired a gun into the royal box when she showed up in a pure white lycra unitard. But these rules are not applied equally. Several years ago, Anna Kournikova wore shorts to little criticism in the far flashier U.S. Open. A few years ago, Maria Sharapova showed up in Flushing Meadows wearing what could only be defined as a cocktail dress, accented with beads, crystals and – oh yes – a white Nike swoosh symbol, part of the company’s “I Feel Pretty” campaign that she centered. Rather than freak out, most tennis pundits agreed that if it helped sell the game to a new generation (especially one that coveted young blonde women), then so be it.

But now Venus Williams – generally considered to be the less flashy of the Williams sisters – shows up to the French Open in a glorified French maid’s costume, without question an outfit that seems more appropriate for the Moulin Rouge than Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Americans seem to be split about Venus’s flirtation with the burlesque. An LA Times poll finds opinion splitting fairly evenly amongst those who claim they “loved it”, “hated it”, or “don’t care” as long as she keeps winning. For her part, Venus says her outfit is “about illusion”, which is her “motif this year.”

But illusion of what? While many seem to claim to be (over)reacting to the black lace corset with bright red ribbon trim that is at the center of her self-designed court attire, I would argue that it is her flesh-colored boy shorts that people are finding objectionable. That’s right, flesh-colored. Because the illusion of see-through that Venus is creating is about the wrong kind of flesh for tennis.

In 1962, Crayola banned its “flesh” crayon in the midst of civil rights movements, changing it to “peach”, although I would bet that I was not the only one to use a “flesh” crayon in elementary school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1999, Crayola took another such step, changing “Indian Red” to “chestnut,” claiming that although the color was based on a pigment from India, it might be offensive to native peoples.

Venus’s boy shorts create the illusion of her skin, her flesh, just as the patrician white panties that my mother wore were undoubtedly considered an extension of her own body. Venus has dressed out of the box in previous tournaments this season: in March in Miami, she donned a red and black tennis tutu with the same corset styling as her current outfit. Few noticed. She has even worn the flesh-colored boy shorts before, but in less visible tournaments, with little media coverage.

So now, on the famous red clay of Roland Garros (where wearing white just seems like a laundry nightmare, if nothing else), the style gods are frowning down on her. People find her exposure of her flesh-colored underpinnings to be obscene, an exposure of parts that are supposed to remain private. But it likely is the color of that flesh that they find so startling and, yes, offensive, rather than the underpants themselves. Otherwise, women on the tennis court have been offensive for a long, long time before now.

The bottom (yes, pun intended) line? If she keeps playing like she did in round one, with fancy footwork and lots of trademark power, Venus “can can” (I can’t help it) get all the way to the final of this slam, which has been a sore spot in her otherwise stellar career. Because while most of the whistles and catcalls were about her outfit, her 6-3, 6-3 win over Swiss player Patty Schnyder, no slouch, indicates that it for her, it is about both style and substance.

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