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At Wimbledon, all-white tradition shines spotlight on women’s health, diversity

Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina returns to Romania's Simona Halep in a women's singles semifinal match on day eleven of the Wimbledon tennis championships in London, Thursday, July 7, 2022. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

There’s been a lot of controversy swirling around this year’s Wimbledon Championships—the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. 

From the unprecedented ostracizing of Russian and Belarusian players, to the chatter about certain male players’ fine-triggering poor behavior, tennis—and Wimbledon, in particular—has become something of a flashpoint for a whole host of cultural issues and moral questions. Like most recently: should Russian tennis players be allowed to play at the All England Club if they do not denounce the war in Ukraine? (Most people and groups, including tennis’s leading tour-level organization, have said yes.) Or should former World No. 1 Novak Djokovic be allowed to travel unvaccinated to a country with surging COVID-19 cases to compete in a tournament in which he is the defending champion—and has won more than any other man in history? (The feeling among players was mostly mixed.)

This year, as the Championships unfolded unsanctioned 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. The strictures of Wimbledon’s enforced attire—which the tournament has doubled-down on in recent years—has given rise to concerns about how it’s impacting women’s health, with several players coming out and saying they skip their periods during the fortnight to avoid any excretory mishaps.

“Definitely something that affects female athletes!” Monica Puig, a former tennis player-turned-broadcaster, tweeted recently. “Finally bringing it to everyone’s attention! Not to mention the mental stress of having to wear all white at Wimbledon and praying not to have your period during 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-era standards of propriety (Wimbledon held its first amateur tournament in 1877). The white wardrobe was thought to visually mitigate the effects of sweating, and tournament officials have been uncompromising in their enforcement of the dress code over the years. Just this year, for example, they made Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania change her bra before her first-round match (the white one she’d brought was, in her own words, too transparent: “…you could see everything underneath and I couldn’t wear it”). In prior years, they’ve also dinged male superstars, such as Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios, among others. 

But Wimbledon’s strict dress rules, of course, run deeper than mere Anglo-Saxon propriety, says Wendi Williams, dean of the School of Education at Mills College at Northeastern. As tournament officials continue to stubbornly resist calls from newer generations to consider their needs, the sport risks entrenching traditions that hurt marginalized players—women, in particular.

“It comes down to: who is allowed to embody sport?” Williams says. “There are so many sports in which women have had to fight and make a case for competition and engagement in these male-dominated spaces. So the question becomes: for whom is sport allowed—and who is able to be there [competing] comfortably?”

And it’s women and Black players who’ve long felt excluded from the sport—and not just at Wimbledon. According to PBS, men governed tennis for nearly a century in the United States amid the sport’s growth, even while women were competing. Black players, however, were outright ignored or rejected by the U.S. Tennis and Lawn Association, the precursor organization to the USTA. 

While the sport has certainly made inclusionary strides over the last several decades, Williams says tennis can’t forthrightly address “the lack of diversity” until it dismantles “structural impediments, usually focused around finance and facility.” Indeed, tennis is highly cost-prohibitive, frequently ranking among the world’s most expensive sports (it requires racquets, available courts, travel and often membership fees). It still pays women less than it pays men, but the gap has been closing. These barriers, and others, are even more notable in developing countries. 

And the sport’s white elitist roots rear uglily when officials and players clash over something as seemingly inconsequential as what type of clothing is permitted on the tennis court. But, Williams argues, they do when the sport compels female players to trade on their comfort and bodily freedom to uphold traditions that historically have controlled them—or prevented them from participating on a level playing field. 

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

There are numerous examples of this form of institutional control in tennis. Perhaps most notable among them is when French Open officials invented a dress code on the spot after Serena Williams wore a black Nike catsuit to the 2018 Roland-Garros, stating, “One must respect the game and the place.” The 23-time Grand Slam champion indicated at the time that the outfit served a functional purpose. 

“I’ve had a lot of problems with my blood clots, God I don’t know how many I’ve had in the past 12 months,” Serena Williams told reporters at the time. “I’ve been wearing pants in general a lot when I play so I can keep the blood circulation going.”

Wendi Williams says it’s been disheartening to watch “historically exclusionary institutions double-down” on their dated codes and traditions.

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