August 18, 2013

Serving up some vintage tennis history and fashion

It is nothing short of impressive, if you ask me, that my maternal grandma has been playing - and still continues to play - tennis since she was a teenager in the 1940s. Throughout her life, this wonderful sport has been a regular and deeply beloved game and form of exercise for her, and I can scarcely think of a time growing up when I didn't see a racket in her car or spend a day together with out the topic coming.

She's always played at a strictly armature level, but I'd venture to guess that after several decades spent honing her skill, she could give some of the household tennis names a run for their money - or at the very least, regale them with tales of how one dressed for a match in the 1940s or 50s.

While I certainly played a number of matches with my grandma as a child, and remember one summer when I was about ten years old that my parents put my brother and I in tennis lessons (which, as I recall, always took place relatively early in the morning on a shade-less court), I was never bite by the tennis bug. Thus, I didn't develop my grandma's passion for it on a personal level (I'll always think her own interest in the game in marvelous and look for tennis themed things to give her wherever I go), and I had very little skill at the sport (unlike badminton which I utterly loved and was, humbly, fairly good at as a youngster).

Tennis ace I am not, that much is for sure, but I find my grandma's adoration of the sport infectious and have developed an appreciation for it over the years, in no small part because of the absolutely lovely yesteryear fashions that have been donned for a day on the courts for numerous decades now.

A game known the world over as being a favourite pastime of the well-to-do, who have (or are perceived as having) oodles of leisure time on their hands, tennis' popularity amongst the upper crust of society is deeply tied into the lengthy history of the sport, which dates back to twelfth century France (where it was originally played by hitting a ball off of a wall with one's hand). As the centuries wore on, rackets came into play (literally) and by the 1500s, a version of tennis (now called real tennis) that we'd easily recognize today was in full swing, and much adored by many of Europe's royals and aristocrats.

{A French illustration from 1622 showing men playing doubles tennis on an indoor court. Image source.}

Over the years, tennis has continued to evolve and change in various ways (including the birth of lawn tennis in the 19th century), its popularity waxing and waning at times, but ultimately coming back into vogue in a big way amongst the Victorians, where again it was often a favourite sport of the moneyed classes. However, it was no longer seen as being quite as exclusively a game for the wealthy as it had been in generations past.

Just as the game itself evolved over time, so too (in keeping with the fashions of the day) did the clothing that one wore on the court. As tennis was (and still is) often played outside, and always involves a great deal of back and forth movement, restrictive clothing - for either sexes - made it hard to play successfully, and an unofficial uniform, typically of white or light coloured fabrics, of sorts began to develop for both men and women.

Traditionally, and well into the twentieth century, woman nearly always wore skirts (or dresses) to play tennis, men long pants (with shorts gaining popularity with men in the 1940s). The nearly ubiquitous white palette we expect of tennis (which naturally works great to help keep you a bit cooler if you've playing outdoors under the glaring sun) really came into its own with the Edwardians and has remained a mainstay of tennis fashion ever since.

One of the most iconic items of tennis wear, especially amongst chaps, the polo shirt made its way onto the courts in 1926 when a French tennis champ by the name of René Lacoste designed a white short-sleeved, knit pique cotton shirt that he wore to the U.S. Open that year. To this day the brand he founded (with its iconic crocodile logo) remains one of the most most loved, and frequently worn, garments amongst tennis players the world over.

As the Victorian era gave way to the twentieth century, tennis - though certainly still popular amongst the wealthy - became more of an everyman's sport, enjoyed as much by those in F. Scott Fitzgerald's circle in the 1920s as by my middle class grandparents and their friends during the forties.

Though tennis is certainly played year-round the world over, the fact that so many take part in this sport when the sun is out in full glory, coupled with childhood memories of doing just that around this time time of the year with my grandma when I was a child, really put in the mood for it this week.

In celebration of tennis' longstanding history and delightful sports attire, allow me to present a selection images that show the evolution, and some of the many lovely styles, of clothing that were worn by players (with an emphasis on ladies fashions) between 1885 and the late 1950s.

{Elegant tennis costumes from the pages of Peterson’s Magazine, June 1885. Love their cute hats, especially the one on the left with the teeny bow on top.}

{Five young women, circa 1889, posing with their tennis rackets in a photography studio.}

{Sharply dressed male and female members of the Staten Island Tennis Club, 1892.}

{A serene Victorian image of tennis being played at the beach, 1893.}

{A turn of the century glass negative showing four Australian women standing near the net on an outdoor court.}

{A female tennis player graced the August 3, 1907 cover of Saturday Evening post, highlighting the wide spread popularity of tennis at the time.}

{Hemline gradually crept a little higher as the 1900s progressed, but almost all tennis skirts of the era - such these three lovely ladies here are sporting - still grazed a player's ankles, if not covering their shoes almost entirely.}

{Well-known Edwardian tennis champ Florence Sutton, 1911.}

{Great action shot of an Edwardian woman in mid-air on an outdoor tennis court, 1916.}

{French female tennis star (and Olympic medalist), Suzanne Lenglen, looking especially glamorous (either before or after a match) on the courts, 1920.}

{Five members of the Berkeley Women's Tennis Team, 1920s - note that hem lengths are non-mid calf, instead of at the ankle or foot as in previous decades.}

{The 1920s really ushered in the classic, preppy look - which is still with us to this day - of v-neck sweaters for male tennis players.}

{The beautiful June 1927 tennis themed cover of Vogue magazine.}

{Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman (right) and Sarah Palfrey Fabyan Cooke Danzig, winners of the 1930 U.S. Indoor Championships in women's doubles. They also won this title in 1928, 1929, 1931, and 1933.}

{The tennis themed August 1932 cover of Vanity Fair magazine.}

{Shorts - for both men and women - begin to slowly make their way onto the courts in the 1930s, though skirts and tennis dresses remain highly popular with female players right up until the present day.}

{Chic, curve hugging knit tennis wear from 1934.}

{Actress Irene Rich sitting courtside in 1934, as she was photographed by Lusha Nelson for Vogue magazine.}

{Short sleeve polo shirts and long pants were staples of the well dressed 1930s male tennis player's wardrobe.}

{Four female Australian tennis players leaping over the next in a photo that was snapped on January 5, 1937.}

{Actress Ava Gardner looking radiantly gorgeous as she takes a breather during a game of tennis (1940s).}

{A good-sized outdoor tennis class at Berkeley during the 1940s.}

{A young 1940s woman playing tennis in a casual ensemble of shorts and a long sleeved shirt.}

{Tennis' wide spread popularity ensured it a spot amongst the work created by pin-up artists and magazine illustrators, such as this 1944 piece entitled "Ball, please?" by Dal Holcomb.}

{The understated elegance that tennis attire excels at personifing shines through in this peaceful image from 1947.}

{A mid-century model poses with a tennis racket in a charming novelty print tennis/playsuit ensemble.}

{Maureen Connolly (Little Mo) and Mrs. I Rinkel (right) walking onto the court at Wimbledon, June 14, 1952.}

{Eight stylish 1950s gals sporting short skirted tennis dresses, many with matching belts.}

{A great action shot of a 1950s female tennis player as her racket makes contact with the ball.}

{The good natured enthusiasm that pervaded most 1950s ads couples with the fun of tennis in this charming mid-century photograph.}

{To learn more about a specific image, please click on it to be taken to its respective source.}

♥ ♥ ♥

Now wasn't that smashingly fun? While it's been beyond the scope of my health to be able to play tennis for well over a decade now, I still enjoy catching the occasional match on TV (say during the Olympics or Wimbledon), and will always love hearing my grandmother talk about her passion for the sport and the fun matches she still continues to play to this day - not mention looking at great yesteryear images like these.

Game, set, and match, vintage tennis!


  1. Great post, Jessica. I play, of course and my Dad played till he was 81, then had a double knee replacement. He is 83 now and been jogging on the beach in Florida everyday, getting back in shape to get back on the courts! Great sport for a lifetime!

  2. I love these pictures! How come tennis fashion has always been so fashionable? ^-^

  3. How wonderful that your grandma is still active. Ive never played tennis, I am not athletic or good at any sort of sports, but Ive always liked the ceremony around it. I also love the 1930s outfits

    kate-the old fashioned way

  4. Soooo adorable! I couldn't play tennis if my life depended on it, but these photos sure make me want to give it a shot. Weren't they classy, though? My favorites are the 1930s outfits. *looks dreamy* They had such style back then.

  5. Gosh, I can't even begin to imagine playing tennis in some of those outfits... hot and un-feminine sweaty comes to mind instantly! I have always loved tennis even though I no longer play... hmmm, I wonder... would fibro let me play tennis? Well, a girl can dream... :D
    Hope you and puppy girl are doing well?!
    I've actually been thinking a lot about a golden retriever once we no longer have kitties. Perhaps dog walking would make it a little more manageable to get out and walk?! How do you cope with the fibro girlfriend? It is kicking my butt... *sigh*
    Talk soon my bloggy friend,
    Beth P

  6. What wonderful pictures of all these tennis cuties. I'm terrible at tennis myself but perhaps I can dress like one of these ladies (or gentlemen!) and give people the impression that I'm much better than I actually am.

  7. Great post. I've enjoyed tennis all my life but I rarely focused on the clothing. I like how you did. It opens a new dimension to the sport for me.

  8. i honestly never tried to play tennis! but i love those vintage shots!! although it looks not really comfortable to play tennis with those maxi skirts and blouses at the beginning;)
    love and kiss,mary

  9. That knit tennis dress must have been horrible once the player was warmed up. The 1920's dresses are gorgeous though, as is that outfit from 1947.

  10. I found this really interesting, you have done such a good job as I have no interest in tennis at all but enjoyed reading this. Lovely to learn about your grandma. My favourite outfit is the 1934 knitted dress. Maybe not that practical but very glamorous.

  11. Gosh your grandmother sounds like a very inspiring lady! Fab vintage tennis photos, thanks for sharing.

  12. Dear Jessica! You have a lovely grandmother! My mother was born in the decade of the 30s, so she was a teenager in the 40s too, but here only worked from sunrise to sunset. Love your stories and how you share them. Kisses, dear Lady.

  13. I played tennis briefly in my teens but didn't really enjoy it. Hubby has always loved tennis but he mainly just watches the Australian Open each year when it's on TV LOL.

    I loved this post so much. My favourite tennis outfit has to be the Berkeley team in the 1920s. Those girls looked fab!

  14. I love the scene in "A Room with a View" where they play tennis. It's amazing how fast you can run with long skirts!

  15. Those 30s gent's fashions, remind me a lot of the standard cricket fare we still see today :)
    I've always thought tennis whites were part of the 'empire' look I associate with the "Brits on holiday" looks in the 1920s and 30s... you know the look (Poirot always shows it when he is away from England!).

  16. Jessica,
    I absolutely adore the images you posted here. The cover of Vogue magazine and the cover of Vanity Fair magazine feature some amazing art (I'd feel free to presume - Vanity FAir's artist was well into cubism?)
    Of, I was right.
    Google (a good friend of mine), gave me this info:
    "Miguel Covarrubias depicts the tennis great Helen Wills hitting a fierce return over the net. The youngest ever women's singles champion, Wills won every set she played in competition from 1927 to 1933."

    Fabulous fashion.
    Stellar post, dear!


  17. Absolutely lovely post as always!!! :D I especially adore the 1940's styles (and the hair and makeup...oooh! SO beautiful!)
    That is delightful that your grandmother enjoys tennis so much, even to this day!
    I do like tennis, although I have rarely played it and I am pretty terrible at it. Badminton is a favourite of mine!! :D

  18. Nice, so nice post today! I have enjoyed the story of tennis style. Women were so feminine and elegant even playing a match. . .

  19. How lovely! It is really neat to see the evolution of tennis-wear. I especially love some of those 1920's tennis dresses. I used to love tennis but my only friend who plays moved away a few years ago and I have yet to find another partner.

  20. Thank you much for your fantastic comments, everyone! A rough weekend, after a rather long, touch week has put me a little behind online at the moment, so in case I don't make to each of your blogs to thank you for your wonderfully nice comments, I really wanted say a big thank you here. This post was a joy to write and put together - one of my faves this year - and I really appreciate all of your great thoughts and impute on it.

    Tons of hugs to one and all,
    ♥ Jessica

  21. Wonderful article. Best reason to play tennis is definitely the fashion. My son recently went to tennis camp and now I'm convinced must have tennis skirts to play with him. LOL. now if I could just get him to wear vintage on the court ;)

    1. Thank you very much, Tam! It would be marvelous if you could convenience your lad to try sporting some tennis fashions. It needn't really be costume-y at all. A classic polo shirt and white pants or shorts could easily look like it just hopped out of the 1930s (especially if his hair was side parted and sleeked back a little).

      ♥ Jessica

  22. What a fun post! You always have such interesting pieces that I never know anything about too. Makes me want to pick up a racket and play, but unfortunately I have a problem with grasping and tennis requires that a bit too much. ;-)

    1. Thank you very much, dear Christy! I've always been a wildly eclectic person with scads of interests, and I love that my blog allows me to chat about so many of them, more often than not relating them back to (my beloved) mid-century history.

      I completely understand, tennis, like almost all sports, has been impossible for me as well due to my health for many years now. Thankfully though, there's always Wimbledon to watch on TV! :)

      ♥ Jessica

  23. These pictures are great! Your grandmother sounds amazing! I can't believe women were able to play in those long skirts- very impressive! And I love that photo of Suzanne Lenglen- so glamorous in that stole!

  24. I love tennis too. I use to play a little when I was younger but I've never been terribly good at it. I just like it for a bit of fun!

    I also love seeing how tennis fashions have evolved over the years. That 30s knit dress is particularly fabulous!


  25. I am a horrible tennis player under the best of circumstances, I can't even begin to imagine trying to play in those long dresses with all of the garb that went along with them. HA!

    Great post, very informative and delightful. Thanks!

  26. What an adorable post! Like many Brits, Wimbledon fortnight is a highlight of my summer, synonymous with eating strawberries and the excuse to sit down and watch some television, and I am always interested to see what the players are wearing. I don't like colours (especially black) on the court or Lycra really, although I imagine it's benefits. My favourite outfits are the pleated White skirts and tennis dresses (for ladies), they are cool and allow movement but look so smart. For men, polo shirts and White shorts, definitely no vests! I used to enjoy a game for fun before I was ill, but like you my health does not allow me to do any cardiovascular exercise at all these days. Thankfully I can still watch, and enjoy lovely pictures like the ones you have posted! Thank you!

  27. I love tennis! I really enjoyed these images - particularly the 50's one at the end... love the 50's!

  28. Reading the part of the age of tennis and early history brought a scene from the movie "Ever After" to mind. It is quite interesting it took that long to add rackets to the game. I imagine most people welcomed that with open arms.

    1. So very, very true! I bet they looked at once another and were like, "And why didn't we think of this sooner?" :)

      It's been ages since I saw Ever After last (probably circa 1999), and I don't recall it that well. You've piqued my there a tennis scene in it?

      ♥ Jessica

  29. Smashingly fun, indeed! What a wonderful post. You found some absolutely lovely photos. Maybe I'd be a better tennis player if I looked half as fabulous! I especially love the knit outfit and the picture of Ava Gardner. That woman is always beautiful.

  30. I think you have a fantastic granny! Please tell us more about her. Perhaps you could interview her. I'd love to hear about the real fifties. Fabulous post. I noticed the knitted tennis dress, never heard of such before. And I wonder how it has been to run around in those long skirts.

    1. Thank you very much, sweet Sanne, I completely agree! She is all kinds of wonderful (here's a post that I wrote on her birthday nearly two years ago as an ode of sorts to her and her parents: I've broached the subject of this kind of interview with her before, but she hasn't been too into the idea. I will gently bring it up again and let her know that the request comes not just from me, but from one of my dear readers/online friends.

      ♥ Jessica