Is it time to change the Wimbledon dress code?

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There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this year’s Wimbledon Championships, the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.

From unprecedented ostracism of Russian and Belarusian players, to gossip about some male players bad behaviour, tennis – and Wimbledon in particular – has become something of a flashpoint for a host of cultural issues and moral issues. Like most recently: Should Russian tennis players be allowed to play at the All England Club if they don’t speak out against the war in Ukraine? (Most people and groups, including the main organization of tennis tournaments, said yes.) Or should former world No. 1 Novak Djokovic be allowed to travel unvaccinated to a country with rising COVID-19 cases to compete in a tournament in which he is the defending champion and has earned more than any other man in history? (The feeling among the players was mostly mixed.)

This year, as the championships went off without permission for the first time in its long history, a chorus of female players added another complaint: the tournament’s head-to-toe. all white dress code. Wimbledon compulsory dress restrictions, which the tournament has doubled over in recent years – has raised concerns about its impact on women’s health, with multiple players go out and say they are skipping their period during the fortnight to avoid any shedding incidents.

“Certainly something that affects female athletes!” Monica Puig, former tennis player turned host, tweeted recently. “Finally bringing it to everyone’s attention! Not to mention the mental stress of having to wear white to Wimbledon and praying you don’t get your period for those two weeks.

Dr. Wendi Williams, Dean of the School of Education at Mills College at Northeastern. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Indeed, the all-white rule is rooted in Victorian standards of propriety (Wimbledon held its first amateur tournament in 1877). The white wardrobe was thought to visually lessen the effects of perspiration, and tournament officials have been uncompromising in their enforcement of the dress code over the years. This year, for example, they made Mihaela Buzarnescu from Romania change her bra before her first-round match (the white she had brought was, in her own words, too transparent: “…you could see everything underneath and I couldn’t wear it”). In previous years, they have also met male superstars, such as Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios, among others.

But Wimbledon’s strict dress rules of course go beyond mere Anglo-Saxon propriety, says Wendi Williams, dean of the School of Education at Northeastern’s Mills College. As tournament officials continue to stubbornly resist calls from new generations to accommodate their needs, the sport risks entrenching traditions that harm marginalized players, especially women.

“It boils down to: who is allowed to embody the sport?” said Williams. “There are so many sports in which women have had to fight and advocate for competition and engagement in these male-dominated spaces. So the question becomes, who is sport allowed for and who can be there? [competing] comfortably?

And it is black women and players who have long felt excluded from sport, and not just at Wimbledon. According PBS, men ruled tennis for nearly a century in the United States amid the growth of the sport, even when women competed. Black players, however, were outright ignored or shunned by the US Tennis and Lawn Association, the precursor organization to the USTA.

While the sport has certainly made progress on inclusion over the past few decades, Williams says tennis cannot directly address “the lack of diversity” until it dismantles “structural barriers, usually centered around on finances and facilities”. Indeed, tennis is very prohibitively expensive, frequently ranking among the most expensive in the world sports (this requires snowshoes, available courts, travel and often membership fees). This women always pay less than men, but the gap is narrowing. These obstacles, and others, are even more noticeable in developing countries.

And the sport’s white elitist roots crumble when officials and players clash over something as seemingly inconsequential as the type of clothing allowed on the tennis court. But, Williams argues, this is the case when sport forces players to trade comfort and bodily freedom to maintain traditions that have historically controlled them or prevented them from participating as equals.

“The dress requirement should be based on the physical needs of the sport and establish a policy around what would keep athletes safe and comfortable in order to perform well,” Williams says. “Everything else is about controlling people.”

There are many examples of this form of institutional control in tennis. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is when Roland-Garros officials invented a dress code on the spot after Serena Williams wore a black Nike jumpsuit at Roland Garros 2018, saying: “You have to respect the game and the place. The 23-time Grand Slam champion indicated at the time that the outfit had a functional purpose.

“I’ve had a lot of trouble with my blood clots, my god, I don’t know how many I’ve had in the last 12 months,” Serena Williams told reporters at the time. “I wear a lot of pants in general when I play so I can maintain blood circulation.”

Wendi Williams says it’s been disheartening to see “historically exclusive institutions doubling down” on their dated codes and traditions.

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