Athletes in Skirts

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 6 2001 11:30 PM

Athletes in Skirts

Why don't women tennis players wear shorts?

Venus WIlliams

As the Wimbledon finals approach, the question arises again: Why do women tennis players still wear skirts? Skirts or bloomers used to be the norm for many women's sports, including basketball, volleyball, golf, and baseball (think A League of Their Own). Kathy Switzer, the first woman ever to officially run the Boston Marathon, ran the 1974 New York Marathon in a dress. A few non-pro women's sports, such as college field hockey and lacrosse, still have skirt uniforms. But aside from ice skating, tennis is the only professional sport where women regularly wear skirts.


Unlike ice skaters, though, tennis players are not scored on how they look, so they can't claim they are captive to judges' preferences. And women don't wear them because skirts are more comfortable or conducive to better play; if that were the case, male tennis players looking for a competitive edge would have adopted skirts, too. (If you doubt this, consider that male athletes shave their legs and don body stockings for swimming.) Plus, pro women usually wear shorts for tennis practice.

It's not that they have to wear skirts in tournaments. The Wimbledon Web site's FAQ section answers the question "What is the dress code for The Championships?" with this redundant answer: "Players' dress is predominantly white ('almost entirely white')." No mention of skirts. Similarly, the Women's Tennis Association, which organizes the premier women's international tour, forbids sweat shirts, sweat pants, T-shirts, jeans, and cut-offs during matches, but doesn't mention skirts.

Maybe the skirt is a matter of tradition. But does the backless yellow spandex dress Venus Williams wore at last year's U.S. Open count as "traditional"? It's not as if wearing shorts would be groundbreaking. Helen Jacobs wore shorts at Wimbledon in 1933, as did Anne Smith in the '70s. In 1950, "Gorgeous" Gussy Moran got a lot of attention for wearing flashy lace-trimmed panties. And then in 1985 Anne White wore a show-stopping white Lycra unitard to Wimbledon. (Click here for a look.) Pam Shriver (whom White beat) complained afterward that the outfit was distracting; referees asked White not to wear it the next day, and she complied.

A few tennis players do currently wear shorts in tournaments. Tennis's designated sexpot, Anna Kournikova, wore shorts in last year's U.S. Open. (Click here and go to Day 4's slide show for pictures.) But most don't. This is likely because looking cute on the court (and giving a little panty flash now and then) is a way for female athletes to rally fan support, and more importantly, increase the value of their endorsement contracts. (Kournikova doesn't have to worry about increasing her stock as a sex symbol, which is why she can afford to wear shorts.) Would Venus Williams have scored a $40 million endorsement contract from Reebok—the highest ever for a female athlete—if she dressed in the baggy shorts of a WNBA or LPGA player? Unlikely. Her earning power depends mainly on winning matches, but looking stunning in a tight yellow dress helps.

Eliza Truitt, a former editor at Slate, now works as a wedding photographer in Seattle.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.


It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?