Another year, another dress controversy at Wimbledon. Although men and women often seem to equally be in breach of the All England Club’s uniquely strict and specific dress code, this year’s most scandalous garment was, in fact, completely compliant.
The Nike Premier Slam tennis dress was worn by a number of players at this year’s tournament. However, its loose and waistband-free design meant that during play it danced wildly around, like a Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tubeman. Many players found they had to attend to the dress mid-match.
Katie Swan tucked it into her shorts, Lucie Šafářová made do with it ballooning throughout the match, repeatedly revealing her shorts and Rebecca Peterson wore a long-sleeved top over hers as it was “flying everywhere” as she served. Sabine Lisicki and centre court queen Serena Williams refused to wear the dress at all.
For an item of clothing supposedly designed for high-performance athletes, the Premier Slam dress seems bizarrely unfit for purpose. Being completely white, however, it met all required standards for Wimbledon dress, regardless of its failure as a performance garment.
Clearly Wimbledon favors form over function when it comes to their dress code, but prioritizing aesthetics over performance seems to affect women’s sports uniforms and sportswear in general.
At the elite level, it is definitely a symptom of women’s sport generally being taken less seriously than men’s. Ousted FIFA President and serial turd-polisher Sepp Blatter once noted that women’s football would garner more attention if the players wore hot pants instead of normal football shorts. It’s hard to imagine that statement being made - even in jest - about a men’s team.
At an everyday level, this translates to women’s sportswear being designed for a relatively narrow range of activities, making assumptions about women’s physical capabilities and ambitions. If we don’t take women’s sports seriously, why would we take the performance of their sportswear seriously?
Beach volleyball provides an interesting example of the uniform disparity between genders at the elite competitive level. Female athletes have a choice between a bikini or shorts in warmer weather, and can wear leggings and long-sleeved tops in cooler weather.
Canadian women’s beach volleyball player Melissa Humana-Paredes feels sorry for her male counterparts, who are forced to wear a full t-shirt and shorts at all times during all weather conditions, as their name and the country they represent must be visible on their shirt at all times. This is not a problem that female players face, as their name and country can be emblazoned on the back of their shorts, bikini bottoms or leggings.
It might seem like the FIVB has gone out of its way to ensure the comfort and choice of its female athletes, whilst men suffer in their full-coverage uniforms on sweltering summer days. This doesn’t seem negative until you consider that, at events such as the Pan Am Games, the female athletes are hardly dressed differently from the cheerleaders.
I remember seeing posters for sale in department and music stores when I was younger that featured women’s butts on a beach volleyball court. Not even their faces most of the time - just their butts (FYI, if you’re a seedy person, you can still buy these posters today.) Combine all of these factors with the “party atmosphere” that is actively promoted around beach volleyball, and it’s easy to view the relaxed uniform rules for women as an indication that it’s not quite as serious a deal as the men’s.
For everyday women, the challenge is finding activewear that is suitable not only for their chosen activities, but also the places that they practice and train in.
When I spoke to a friend about this issue, she pointed out that the most readily available women’s sportswear is designed for yoga or running. As she enjoys resistance and weight training and trains at a male-dominated gym, low-cut hip-level waistbands are not suitable for the squats and lunges that are a regular part of her routine. She even gave me some workout pants that she had bought for herself overseas, not realizing at the time that they had several revealing mesh panels in places she wasn’t comfortable displaying.
She also complains about the lack of “strong colors” versus the abundance of “girly colors” - she doesn’t want to turn up to her gym in pinks and purples, but if you take them out of the running only black and grey colors are available. Compare that to the palette of men’s sportswear at an average sportswear store, which, although dominated by black and grey, features bold shades of blue, orange and red.
Arguably, this is a result of the “athleisure”/”ahctivewahr” trend of the last few years. Activewear is available cheaply at department and general womenswear stores, manufactured for mums on the school run or a Sunday morning stroll for coffee, rather than for a performance athlete. Women’s sportswear is regarded as an avenue of mainstream fashion, often closely linked to streetwear, and as such is frequently designed with fashion rather than performance or quality in mind.
A common complaint is that yoga pants, which are overwhelmingly designed as tight-fitting leggings, become sheer when stretched (which happens often during activities such as, for example, yoga.) A quick online search brings up a significant number of community and forum threads of women seeking advice on which see-through tights to avoid.
Although this is generally attributed to Lululemon, with ex-chairman, founder and general douche Chip Wilson blaming the sheer effect on women’s bodies, cheap department store activewear as well as those designed by “proper” performance brands such as Nike and Under Armour seem to be equally guilty of being unintentionally revealing. This is not a common complaint among men who wear these brands - although, aside from compression wear, men’s sportswear is generally not designed to cling to the body as much as women’s is, so it would be an unusual complaint to hear.
Another potential reason for the underperformance of women’s performance wear is the particular brand of objectification and fetishization of women in sportswear, particularly female tennis players. Alongside the “beach volleyball women’s butt” posters available for purchase back in the day, the poster that I most vividly remember is Tennis Girl. Again, if you’re seedy, you can still buy this poster today, as well as a range of other posters of female tennis players - including, of course average, performer but highly popular late ’90s pinup, Anna Kournikova.
On AllPosters.com, their tennis posters include far more of female players than male. Many of them capture the players in action, and some might argue that these images are simply admiring of the athletic form and the athlete’s prowess, but bearing in mind the longstanding social and historical context of female objectification, this admiration seems a lot less capability-based and a lot more creepy.
Sportswear designers with the best of intentions might find themselves under pressure to favor revealing aesthetics over performance when it comes to women’s tennis clothing.
It seems that two key factors need to shift before women’s performance clothing is taken as seriously as that of their male counterparts. Firstly, women’s bodies - athletic or otherwise - need to be viewed less as objects to be visually admired, and more as the complex and incredibly capable biological machines that they are.
Secondly, women’s sportswear needs to be regarded less as a fashion line and more as essential equipment to assist women in achieving their physical goals. Progress on both of these fronts is likely to be slow, however.
Recently Miss Teen USA removed their swimwear category from their pageant and replaced it with an athletic wear category. Hailing their own move as progressive - despite the adults’ Miss USA and Miss Universe retaining the swimwear category - a representative from pageant owner IMG stated that the shift celebrated “being healthy, and being in shape and being comfortable in your own skin.”
The next Miss Teen USA pageant doesn’t take place until July 30, but something tells me that the athletic wear category isn’t going to be judged on the sweat-wicking properties of their fabrics.
For more on the limits of women's activewear, check out why women's sneaker options suck so much.