When Jesse Owens arrived at the Olympic Village in Berlin in 1936, he was presented with a pair of unique running shoes by Adi Dassler, owner of a then-modest sports company. Owens would wear this light, innovative footwear as he sprinted into his sporting history. This garish footwear would eventually become the industry standard and Adidas, the company behind their design, was to grow into a global clothing giant. But while most people will remember Owens for his extraordinary medal haul during that year, it is also worth noting the significant contribution he has made to fashion in sport.
Up to this point, the worlds of sport and fashion were independent of each other. Sporting bodies employed strict, archaic dress codes for athletes, particularly for women, where long, unflattering skirts were part of the expected uniform. Pioneers, like Dassler, began to consider comfort as a key factor of athletic performance; the last thing any sportsperson needs, is to be hindered by heavy garments. Owens became one of the first African-American superstars in sport. His influence is still felt today, with many viewing his choice of footwear not as a bold, grotesque statement but a stroke of genius from one of sport’s fashion pioneers.
“Sporting bodies employed strict, archaic dress codes for athletes, particularly for women, where long, unflattering skirts were part of the expected uniform.”
However, 82 years later, the world is seemingly singing a different tune. Serena Williams, one of the most successful African-American athletes of all time, elects to wear a black catsuit at the French Open, prompting organisers at Roland Garros to ban female players from donning the ensemble at future tournaments. The decision evoked outrage on social media, accusing the sport of applying double standards to men and women with regards to their attires. This is a sport, after all, that allowed Andre Agassi to wear denim shorts at the 1988 US Open. However, without getting too political, the incident highlighted the unhealthy relationship sport has with fashion currently, as well as the poor view society has of women’s sports.
One could understand why the fashion industry rarely takes the sporting world too seriously, and vice versa. The former maintains an acute and sole focus on aesthetic and appearance. Fashion designers, makeup artists, and models strive to attain visual perfection at all times in their line of work. This quality can be quite elusive for sportspeople, who push their bodies to their physical limit, often at the expense of looking good. The various contortions and expressions an athlete’s face makes are not usually conventionally attractive, nor are the bruises, marks and other battle scars one inevitably picks up in contact sports. Likewise, sport does not concern itself with such trivial matters such as outfit coordination. When a teammate is more focused on how their hair looks or the design of their new leggings than the competition, it arouses fear in the squad that they may not possess the correct mindset.
That said, sport can be too disengaged from the realities of fashion in sport. One only has to look at the sportswear of yesteryear to understand that when it came to women, comfort and performance were ignored, perhaps deliberately. In the early 20th century, women’s sports were not seen as important and competitive enough to merit the design of sportswear that would allow them to move freely, thereby enhancing performance. For golf, women wore long skirts and tailored blouses, as was the case for tennis, horse riding, and croquet. Tweed was the fabric of choice for most of these sports. The golf sweater became fashionable to wear as comfortable casual clothing. For the most part, however, sportswear for women in this period was restrictive, hot, and above all, uncomfortable.
In 1922, tennis player Suzanne Lenglen boldly chose a short skirt as part of her Wimbledon outfit. More outrageous still, Lenglen elected not to wear a hat with her ensemble, shocking the reserved British spectators and earning her a reputation as a sporting malcontent. The change in apparel paid dividends though, as she dominated women’s tennis, claiming eight Grand Slam titles in her prime. Moreover, her ability to stir up controversy led to a surge in the popularity of women’s tennis, as fans came out in their droves to see how she would shock the world next.
Up until the 1950s, female athletes slowly began to be taken seriously, even by men, and women’s sportswear began to be designed with an emphasis on functionality.
Ten years later, Alice Marble further broke the mould. The American marched onto the Wimbledon court in white shorts to the tune of horrified gasps from the stands. Marble went on to conquer the tennis world from then on, snatching five Slams between 1936 to 1940. Both athletes sparked outrage in donning these unconventional clothes. However, in defying the dress standards of women at the time, Lenglen and Marble paved the way for other female athletes to challenge the ridiculous restrictions set by those who either didn’t understand or didn’t care about women’s sports. Up until the 1950s, female athletes slowly began to be taken seriously, even by men, and women’s sportswear began to be designed with an emphasis on functionality.
However, then came the 1960s. Whilst before, people were uncomfortable with the idea and sexuality of the human body, now things had drastically changed. More and more, people were increasingly sexualising aspects of everyday life, including sport. The emergence of the sex symbol also had a huge influence on people’s view of sport. Male sports stars, like Joe Namath and George Best, captured the sexual imagination of fans. But these new developments were troubling for women’s sports. With the increased emphasis on sexual identity, women in sport were seen as mere objects. Specimens in peak physical condition, female athletes were imagined in purely sexual terms, making it far more acceptable to not take their sports all that seriously. Such is a sentiment that ring true today.
This is where fashion in sport becomes a heated topic. An inability to see female athletes as dedicated sportspeople leads to harsh dress codes implemented. The Williams catsuit controversy, particularly the official statement of the organisers at Roland Garros, suggest that the world has moved back towards the beliefs of the early 20th century. While significant progress has been made, once again comfort and freedom of movement have been swept to the side in the name of decency – an oppressive, stuffy concept that harkens back to the cold days of sexual repression.
If progress is to be made, athletes need to be comfortable that they will be judged on their performance and not what they wear.
The French Tennis Federation President, Bernard Giudicelli, justified the ban, saying: “One must respect the game and the place.” Respect is central to the entire debate. Establishing unfair restrictions on what women wear creates a hypocrisy; that they expect respect for the game while not affording it to elite female athletes. As any sports fan is aware, athletes put in seismic efforts in their pursuit of glory – that alone deserves the respect of all who watch. They should not need to also dress sensibly before the world can take them seriously.
Fashion and sport have quite a complex relationship. On one level, legends like Jesse Owens can adopt new technologies and become instant icons. Conversely, the harsh dress codes placed on sporting stars is yet another way to belittle female athletes and their contributions. To establish sport as an even playing field for all involved, society needs to address its attitudes towards female competitors. If progress is to be made, athletes need to be comfortable that they will be judged on their performance and not what they wear.