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How an “Indecent” Outfit Revolutionized Women’s Tennis

The sport's role in liberating women from the passivity of Victorian society.

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It was ironic that Suzanne Lenglen, a woman, should have become the first international tennis celebrity, given the controversy surrounding women’s very presence on the court. Suzanne was the daughter and only child of Charles Lenglen, a well off rentier. He noted her exceptional athletic ability from an early age and, aware of the social prestige of tennis on the French Riviera, joined the fashionable Nice Tennis Club. Children were not normally allowed to become members, but so unusual was Suzanne’s potential that she became a junior member, playing with adults. Charles trained Suzanne himself and dominated their close relationship—an early example of the tendency for women tennis stars to be coached by their fathers (in today’s game the more famous examples being Venus and Serena Williams). It brought immense success. Suzanne Lenglen’s fame soon spread beyond the Riviera and from 1919 to 1926 she reigned as supreme international tennis star and indeed supreme female athlete.  

Long before she stepped into the spotlight the men in charge of the game had thoroughly objected to a new generation of young women who had rebelled against the lives of passivity led by their mothers and were bent on a different existence. Lottie Dod wrote forcefully of the difficulties that faced women in the early years. She pointed to the curious inconsistency whereby tennis was regarded at one and the same time as “only a lady’s game,” a “pat ball” pastime unworthy of sporting men, yet equally “quite beyond their powers” either to play it or to understand the scoring system. There was “at one time a real danger”, said Dod, “lest men’s and women’s lawn tennis should be entirely separated, with different grounds, balls, and laws.” True, a women’s tournament was organized in Dublin in 1879, but it was not played on the usual courts in Fitzwilliam Square, as this was considered too public a venue. Nor were ladies admitted as members to the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club. When women’s tournaments were initiated at Wimbledon in 1884, the doubles were played away from the main grounds.

It is difficult to understand these objections until one becomes fully aware of just how restricted the lives and movements of middle-class women were in the 1870s and 1880s. Many people, and not just men, felt it was not respectable for women to be seen playing actively in public at all. Women violated their own femininity in making violent movements, and seeming to perspire or be out of breath was unthinkable and even indecent, so strongly was femininity equated with passivity. This was one of the most inhibiting factors for female players: the convention that prevented young women from any vigorous display of movement. Lord Curzon, one-time viceroy of India and a government minister at this period, is notoriously said to have said of sexual intercourse that ‘ladies don’t move’ and this prohibition on lively activity extended much more generally. Anything else was damaging to their femininity.

By the turn of the twentieth century, nonetheless, women had won the day. Herbert Chipp, the first secretary of the Lawn Tennis Association, was no advocate of the emancipation of women and yet in his recollections, published in 1898, he recognized a fait accompli when he saw one: 

Among the manifold changes and consequent uprooting of prejudices which the latter half of the century has witnessed, nothing has been more characteristic of the new order of things than the active participation of women in its sports and pastimes … the unblushing young women of the day were daily joining in pursuits that their grandmothers would have regarded as unalloyed heathenism. 

He conceded however that times had changed and “lawn tennis must claim a large share of the responsibility for the introduction of the new regime.” And although “the athleticism of the fin de siècle woman appears sometimes too pronounced,” he conceded that the changes “must ultimately prove beneficial to the race at large—at all events physically. Whether the benefits will be as great morally is a question which only time can settle.” But he recognized that the new generation of women would not be “worse mothers because, instead of leading sedentary lives, a great portion of their young years has been spent on the river, the tennis lawn, the hockey field and the golf links—ay, even on the now ubiquitous bicycle itself.”

Yet commentators and players alike continued to pour scorn on the women’s game. A. L. Laney, writing after the First World War, had no time for it whatsoever. “Few games played by women seem worth recalling,” he wrote. “The dears are, on the whole, comparatively dull performers in sport and nearly always it is clashing personalities rather than skill or outstanding performance that make the occasion memorable. Unless something other than actual tennis has intervened to grace the occasion, you will search long through the history of the game to find matches suitable for embalming in the hackneyed superlatives of the sportswriter.”

Given that this was the dominant perception of the game, it should be no surprise that the appearance of Suzanne Lenglen at the first post-war Wimbledon caused a sensation. When she walked onto the Centre Court on July 5, 1919, she was more than just a new sporting figure. The French finalist wore a startlingly brief costume. Described as “indecent” in parts of the press, it was a simple frock with short sleeves and a skirt reaching only to the calves, to reveal white stockings. On her head was a floppy hat. Yet, hailed as a revolutionary change in tennis dress for women, it was actually the result of a long and much slower process. The way in which the women of the western world gradually shed their clothes between 1914 and the 1920s was hastened by the war, but was evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

She nevertheless presented a startling contrast to her opponent, Dorothea Lambert Chambers, a seven-times champion and, at 40, twice Lenglen’s age. She was dressed in an ankle length Edwardian skirt, a shirt fastened at the neck and wrists, and, although these of course were not visible, corsets.

An epic struggle ensued, enthralling to the sell-out crowd of 8,000. They had queued for hours to get in—and as they waited had sung an old war song adapted for the occasion: “It’s a Lenglen trail awinding.” King George V and Queen Mary, a keen follower of the game, were among the audience who watched a match that lasted for over two hours. Mrs. Chambers twice held match point, but Lenglen won the third and deciding set 9-7. With her victory, she became symbolic of the new time.

The two women athletes who faced each other were at once cast as personifications of youth versus age, new versus old. It was the passage from the pre- to the post-war world. Dorothea Chambers represented the Edwardian stuffiness of suburban vicarage tennis. Suzanne, the “goddess of tennis,” said the Times, was “the player for the Jazz age, gay, brittle, and brilliant.”

The growing popularity of sport generally, the craze for the bicycle, the rise of the lower-middle class and the struggle for women’s emancipation, had all emerged before 1914. In their various ways the Belle Epoque in France, the Progressive Era in the United States, and the Edwardian Indian summer in Britain had carried within them the seeds of the “Jazz Age.” Yet the 1919 Wimbledon final sent a message about social change and about women’s emancipation, about a new and different future in which fun would trump duty. Suzanne Lenglen benefited from changes that had been developing for over a decade. She attracted the sort of fervid admiration usually reserved for actresses and music-hall stars. Her fame seemed to bring to tennis the new consciousness of glamour and eroticism that by 1920 Hollywood was spreading across Europe and beyond. To this moment Lenglen was perfectly attuned, as if born to be the first international celebrity tennis star in the most international of all sports. But like other players subsequently, she could be projected as a symbol. She was the 1920s goddess of modernity.

Reprinted with permission from Love Game: A History of Tennis, From Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon, published by the University of Chicago Press and Serpent’s Tail. © 2014 Elizabeth Wilson. Published 2016. All rights reserved.