Suzanne Lenglen, 1926.
AP Photo
antecedent / culture

Wimbledon’s First Fashion Scandal

100 years ago, a tennis player shocked spectators with her “indecent” dress—not for the last time.
This year’s Wimbledon marks the centennial of the tournament’s first, though hardly its last, fashion scandal. In 1919, a 20-year-old Frenchwoman named Suzanne Lenglen made her Wimbledon debut in a shockingly skimpy ensemble: a low-neck dress with short sleeves and a calf-length pleated skirt, her silk stockings rolled down to just above her knees, and a floppy hat covering her cropped hair. She didn’t wear a corset. She didn’t even wear a petticoat. Though the press called her outfit “indecent,” Lenglen went on to win the tournament—and the next four Wimbledon championships, as well as two French Opens and three Olympic medals.

One hundred years ago—when female players typically wore the same ankle-length skirts and high-necked, long-sleeved blouses on and off the court—Lenglen’s winning streak made tennis history, while also altering the course of fashion history. As the 1910s turned into the ’20s, her short-sleeved dress gave way to sleeveless dresses, and her linen hat to a much-copied headband, dubbed by the media the “Lenglen bandeau.” Instead of boots with shapely heels, she wore flat, rubber-soled “Lenglen shoes.” Originally chosen for comfort on the tennis court, these chic, practical styles soon spilled over into women’s everyday wardrobes. At the height of her career, Lenglen was the most famous female athlete in the world, a mainstay of sports pages, gossip columns, and fashion magazines alike. By 1926, when Queen Mary presented her with a medal to mark the 50th championship at Wimbledon, it was the young athlete, not the formidable monarch, who was the global fashion influencer.

Despite Wimbledon having the most stringent dress code on the pro tour (even some spectators are subject to outfit guidelines), its style forecast is as uncertain as the English weather. This year’s tournament has already brought its share of statements and scandals. What is it about tennis that seems to attract, and provoke, fashion drama? For one, the sport has such a long history; the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts Wimbledon, was founded in 1868 and held women’s competitions as early as 1884. The tennis circuit clings to its time-honored traditions, and nowhere more so than at Wimbledon, where you can count on finding strawberries and cream, ad-free courts, royal spectators, and a game-free Middle Sunday.
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