The Tennis Skirt: For Function, Fashion, and Fetishization
February 27, 2020
The term ‘tennis skirt’, while originally referring to – as the name suggests – a garment worn by female tennis players to provide a greater sense of freedom, mobility, and agility during matches, has become increasingly used to refer to the pleated, often high-waisted skirts worn by the young population as an everyday fashion choice. These ‘tennis skirts’ became highly popular in the 90s – one of American Apparel’s most popular and iconic pieces – and continue to be a somewhat staple garment in the contemporary sphere. Tennis skirts, both in the athletic sphere and the fashion sphere, have evolved significantly since their inception, mainly decreasing in length as societal norms have evolved to increase the emphasis on women as sexual objects. While still maintaining their intended level of function, designers and manufacturers of these skirts have pushed the boundaries beyond what was once deemed acceptable by society – from a desire to cover and draw attention away from the female body to a desire to expose and accentuate it.
To explore the garment and its impact in these two contexts, I chose the two photographs above for analysis; the first is a press photograph of Gertrude Moran in a white tennis dress during Wimbledon, and the second is a photograph posted to the Instagram account of highly popular, one-size-fits-all clothing brand Brandy Melville. I initially chose this garment in these two contexts – the world of sport and the ‘petite’ fashion market – expecting a world of difference, but the specific photograph I chose of Gertrude Moran led me to discover a striking similarity between the seemingly unintentional effect of her clothing choice and the intended effect resulting from such a choice in the contemporary sphere. While the existence of intent to provoke a certain reaction through the choice to wear such a garment differs given the context, the reaction – one of over-sexualization and objectification driven by a societal obsession with the exposure of the female body – is overwhelmingly consistent.
Our widespread fascination with the tennis skirt offers a striking commentary on the social role of the dressed body. As posited by Joanne Entwistle, “the dressed body is a fleshy, phenomenological entity that is so much a part of our experience of the social world and so thoroughly embedded within the micro-dynamics of social order” (Entwistle, 94). Often times, the way in which we situate the body in terms of fashion and garment choice offers a narrative of how we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others, and dictates our interactions with those around us. The choice to wear a tennis skirt, a commonly sexualized garment, is underlined by the implication that one wishes to show off the body and offer it to the public as an object to be examined and either admired or scrutinized. It is unlikely that the choice to wear a tennis skirt will be overlooked without such a judgment on the wearer’s intent – a fairly unfortunate paradigm verifying Entwistle’s argument.
The first photograph that I chose to analyze is of Gertrude ‘Gussy’ Moran – nicknamed ‘Gorgeous Gussie’ by the press – in a white tennis dress. This photograph was taking during a match at Wimbledon, the oldest and arguably most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. After the All England Club denied Moran’s request to be allowed to wear color – as opposed to following the all-white dress code set by the club – at Wimbledon in 1949, former player turned dress designer Teddy Tinling created a design for her that caused a stir amongst the media and fans for an alternate reason. The dress that Tinling designed featured a skirt shorter than had been conventional at the time that, while appearing to fall appropriately while she was inactive, blatantly exposed the lace knickers she wore underneath while she was playing. It is said that photographers of the event “quickly fought to secure the best position – preferably at ground level – to get their pictures,” – exemplified here by this press photograph from the event – in an attempt to capture her lace knickers in their images. Moran was heavily criticized by the Club for “bringing vulgarity and sin into tennis” as a result of such photographs, despite her lack of intent in drawing such attention and the portrayal of her body as a sexual object originating not from her but from those photographing her.
The intention of the photographers in portraying this imagined character of her is exemplified by the angle at which this photograph was taken, as previously mentioned, as well as by the particular moment that the photographer chose to capture in terms of the way her body is positioned. The photographer, capturing Gertrude from a ground-level position the moment she aggressively leaped forward onto her left leg – the one closer to the camera – and twisted her body in a way that, in turn, displaced her skirt created a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed a clear pathway for his lens to aim directly up her skirt. The photographer is also placed behind her, placing a lack of importance on her face – and, therefore, her personal identity – and further insinuating the intention of his positioning in focusing on her body. The photo as a whole captures her immense athleticism and displays the functionality of the garment, allowing her to move around swiftly and make the large steps and leaps necessary to track and return the ball; however, this display is greatly overshadowed by the choice of the photographer to designate the objectifiable aspects of her garment as the focal point of the photograph and encourage the sexualization of her body by disseminating the photograph throughout the press and media landscape. The photographer paints a portrait of Moran through this image that devalues her not only as an athlete, but also as a person, as is the same for many women photographed through the lens of our society of objectification.
The second photo that I chose to analyze, as previously mentioned, is a photograph pulled from the Instagram account of popular clothing brand Brandy Melville. Brandy Melville is a primarily one-size-fits-all clothing brand, leading to its continuous reputation as a proponent of the contemporary societal obsession with the stick-thin ‘model body’. The image features two models dressed in clothing from the brand – the one closest to the camera dressed in a loose, cropped sweatshirt and a black pleated tennis skirt – posed in such a way as to suggest that they are looking at themselves in a mirror. Many aspects of the photograph exemplify the aforementioned obsession with the display of the female body; the way the photo is composed and cropped, strategically excluding the model’s face, places a heavy emphasis on the model’s body, leaving it as the focal point of the image. Her hand placement places a specific emphasis on her waist, as does its central location in the image, drawing the eye directly to it. A combination of both the fit of the skirt and the way her body is posed – with her pelvis tilted back slightly – create a gap between the front of the skirt and her stomach, further emphasizing how small her waist is.
The garment itself, from a formal perspective, is designed to accentuate a smaller waistline and allow for an optical enlargement of the wearer’s butt, promoting an exaggerated hourglass figure even on models such as these whose butts are typically not as large or pronounced. It is fairly clear, given the reputation of the brand, that these choices are intentional and are used to further perpetuate the ideal body image with which the brand so consistently associates itself. As this is often the image young girls aspire to assimilate to as a result of this media and industry driven perpetuation, the choice to display oneself in such a light is often intentional when it comes to the everyday, non-athletic iteration of the tennis skirt. The impact created through this collection of small details and choices exemplifies Anne Hollander’s idea that “the modern clothed body is a complete figural image… [and] it is the whole picture that carries the meaning” (Hollander, 27). Brandy Melville’s consistent use of these photographical choices as well as models of this body type also lend to the argument posed by Hollander that “repeated pictures keep images present in the eye,” suggesting that the societal view of both this body type and this style of dress as ideal will persist as long as their photographical representation does as well.
These photographs and the drastically similar cultural implications that they both carry despite differing greatly in terms of context – subject, time period, activity and lack thereof, and purpose [function versus fashion] – lend themselves to display the everlasting, ubiquitous nature of the objectification and hyper-sexualization of the female body; that the societal view of a single garment can devalue and dehumanize any individual regardless of their identity or intent is a shocking insight into our often one-sided view of the dressed female body, situating all female bodies within the same frame and subjecting them all to the same judgement and critique. This idea of the dressed female body as viewed through a single lens parallels society’s view of women as one-dimensional, and will likely be sustained, as suggested by Hollander, through the rampant production of these ideologically implicit images.
Entwistle, Joanne. “The Dressed Body.” Real Bodies: A Sociological Introduction, by M. Evans and E. Lee, Palgrave, 2003, pp. 133–150.
Hall, Charlette. “Evolution of Women's Tennis Apparel Steered by Cultural Trends.” The Red & Black, The Red & Black Publishing Company, Inc., 6 Mar. 2014, www.redandblack.com/sports/evolution-of-women-s-tennis-apparel-steered-by-cultural-trends/article_981096ac-a552-11e3-ae73-001a4bcf6878.html.
Hollander, Anne. “II. The Work of Fashion: Meaning in Fashion.” Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress by Anne Hollander, Knopf, 1994, pp. 24–29.
Newman, Paul. “Gussie Moran: Tennis Player Who Shocked Wimbledon With Her Controversial Clothing.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 20 Jan. 2013, www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/gussie-moran-tennis-player-who-shocked-wimbledon-with-her-controversial-clothing-8459119.html.
Newman, Paul. “Gussie Moran: Tennis Player Who Shocked Wimbledon with Her.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 20 Jan. 2013, www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/gussie-moran-tennis-player-who-shocked-wimbledon-with-her-controversial-clothing-8459119.html.
[USC COMM 396, Trope]