Victorian Sportswear: Tennis Fashions of the Late 19th Century

“As a nation we ought to welcome the healthy, hearty girl who can beat her brother in managing a tennis ball, in rowing a boat, and very often in managing a frisky horse.”
Ladies Home Journal, 1891.

A Rally by Sir John Lavery, 1885.

A Rally by Sir John Lavery, 1885.

The game of lawn tennis was invented in the 1860s by retired British army officer Major Walter Clopton Wingfield.  He patented the game in 1874 and, within a few short years, lawn tennis had become one of the most popular sports for women in Victorian England.  Ladies played it at society garden parties and at tennis clubs.  By the mid-1880s, they were even competing at Wimbledon, leading the 1891 edition of the Wright & Ditson Officially Adopted Lawn Tennis Guide to declare that:

“Lawn tennis has done more to develop among girls a taste for outdoor sports than have all other exercises combined.”

Cover of the first edition of Lawn Tennis by Walter Wingfield, 1873.

Cover of the first edition of Lawn Tennis by Walter Wingfield, 1873.
(It was originally known as “sphairistike,” which was Greek for ball game.)

Initially, an excess of athleticism was not encouraged in women.  In fact, in her 2010 book The Sporting Life, author Nancy Fix Anderson explains that—though lawn tennis required a certain degree of physical exertion and strength—Victorian ladies were discouraged from playing in a competitive manner.  Instead, they were urged to simply hit the ball to their opponent.  In similar fashion, the Lawn Tennis Guide downplays women’s athletic ability, praising instead “the charm women bring to tennis.”  As the guide states:

“They are graceful and gentle; they have spirit and enthusiasm; and in tennis, as in other things, they stimulate man to do his best.  How they thank you with a look! how they rejoice with you! how they comfort you! how often they outdo expectation! and how pretty they are!  If they fight against you, what winsome, if not winning, adversaries!”

1885 Women's Cotton Tennis Dress.(Image via LACMA)

1885 Women’s Cotton Tennis Dress.
(Image via LACMA)

Women’s clothing was not very helpful in combating these unfortunate stereotypes.  In the late 1870s and early 1880s, for example, women simply wore their ordinary day dresses to play lawn tennis.  Sleeves were long and skirts often brushed the ground.  Wide-brimmed hats made it impossible to see overhead and heeled boots further impaired a lady’s movements.  Add to that, women playing lawn tennis were expected to wear all the layers of normal dress, including corset, petticoats, and bustle.

1885-1888 Tennis Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1885-1888 Dress suitable for Tennis, Yachting, or the Seaside.
(Image via Met Museum)

Most ladies of this time period would wear a pinafore or an apron over their day dress to protect it from dirt and grass stains during play.  As you can see in the below example, these tennis aprons usually had pockets to store extra tennis balls.

1880-1900 Cotton Tennis Apron.(Manchester Art Gallery)

1880-1900 Cotton Tennis Apron.
(Manchester Art Gallery)

According to fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington, it was not until 1884 that sports costumes for tennis (as well as for archery, boating, shooting, fishing, and cycling) began to form “a distinct class” in women’s fashion.  Magazines of the late 1880s advertised stylish tennis dresses made of wool, silk, sateen, or striped flannel.  Skirts were straight and often pleated, with hems 2-4 inches off the ground.  As for hats, Cunnington states:

“For lawn tennis many girls wear the counterpart of their brothers’ cricketing caps with a flap.”

Tennis Dress, The Woman's World, 1889.

Tennis Dress, The Woman’s World, 1889.

The 1889 edition of The Woman’s World Magazine includes an illustration of a very fashionable tennis dress by Messrs. Debenham and Freebody.  The description reads:

“The model has a skirt of check woolen, blue on white, the bodice made simply to the figure, the novelty about it being some lacings introduced on the collar-bone in front, and triple lacings at the waist; the jacket is of plain flannel in pure white, and can be slipped on and off as required.  This is just the sort of dress that a true tennis-player would appreciate; it looks well, and insures perfect freedom.”

By the 1890s, women’s fashions for lawn tennis were beginning to adapt to the sport.  In an article in the Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin of 1897, author Juliette Atkinson addresses these changes, writing:

“Some years ago it was thought that almost anything would do for a tennis costume; and the result was sometimes appalling.  The player of today has rather more idea of the fitness of things, and does not appear on the courts in a woollen skirt, too long and much too heavy, a waist that certainly was never intended for the tennis court, and an absurd little visored cap that neither shelters from the sun nor adds to the appearance.”

1880-1890 British Two-Piece Tennis Ensemble.(Image via Powerhouse Museum)

1880-1890 British Two-Piece Tennis Ensemble.
(Image via Powerhouse Museum)

Atkinson goes on to recommend a plain tennis dress with a full skirt, approximately “three yards and a half round” and “made to clear the ground by about four inches.”  For color, Atkinson advises that “white is prettier for tennis than anything else.”  For fabric, she suggests a lightweight piqué, well starched.  As for trimmings, Atkinson writes:

“All ribbons, bows, in fact all fussiness should be dispensed with in the tennis costume.  The simpler it is, the better.”

1890 White Cotton Piqué Tennis Suit.(Image via Kyoto Costume Institute)

1890 White Cotton Piqué Tennis Suit.
(Image via Kyoto Costume Institute)

Though women’s tennis costumes were much more practical at the end of the Victorian era than they had been in the 1870s, they were still relatively restrictive—especially when compared with tennis costumes of today.  Nevertheless, many talented sportswomen of the Victorian era were able to make a name for themselves in competitive play.  In 1884, Maud Watson became the first female champion at Wimbledon.  She was soon followed by Wimbledon champions Blanche Bingley, Lottie Dodd, Lena Rice, and Charlotte Cooper.

English Tennis Champion Charlotte Cooper, 1900.

English Tennis Champion Charlotte Cooper, 1900.

Charlotte Cooper would go on to win the tennis singles event at the Summer Olympics in 1900, making her the first individual female Olympic champion in history.

U. S. International Tennis Players, 1895.
(Photo: Gilbert and Bacon, Library of Congress)

The 2016 Summer Olympics are currently in progress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Women’s tennis started on August 6 and competition will continue through August 14.  There are no corsets, bustles, or long skirts, but I hope you all enjoy watching and rooting for your favorite players.

1880 Electroplated Nickel Silver Tennis Brooch.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1880 Silver Tennis Brooch.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)


Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

Anderson, Nancy Fix.  The Sporting Life: Victorian Sports and Games.  Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

Atkinson, Juliette.  “Tennis Costume for Ladies.”  Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin.  Vol. IV.  Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, University Press, 1897.

Cunnington, C. Willett.  English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.  London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1939.

Johnstone, Mrs.  “The Latest Fashions.”  The Woman’s World.  Vol. II.  London: Cassell & Co., 1889.

Mallon, Isabel.  “Costumes for Lawn Tennis.”  Ladies’ Home Journal.  Vol. IX.  Philadelphia: Curtis Publishing, 1891.

Party-Giving on Every Scale.  London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1880.

Williams, Jean.  A Contemporary History of Women’s Sport, Part One: Sporting Women, 1850-1960.  New York: Routledge, 2014.

Wright & Ditson Officially Adopted Lawn Tennis Guide.  Boston: Wright & Ditson, 1891.


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5 thoughts on “Victorian Sportswear: Tennis Fashions of the Late 19th Century

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    Having cordially loathed tennis at school It puzzles me why any ladies should want to play the wretched game even when not exhorted constantly to put some wellie into it. I might go for lackadaisically tipping back balls patronisingly sent to me by some male player who cared enough to bother to practice placing them, I suppose; but not in all that costume. I passed out or threw up every summer Wednesday afternoon, even in an aertex and pleated short skirt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I think that, initially, many ladies in the Victorian era were just glad to have some sport to engage in besides riding and croquet. However, as you can probably see from all the Wimbledon and Olympic champions at the end of the era, those trying to convince women not to be competitive ultimately failed in their quest 😉

      Like

  2. Vickie says:

    I didn’t realize that women started playing lawn tennis in their regular clothes. What an inconvenience – I am amazed that it continued at all – but women have lots of spirit and at that time I can imagine that the more adventurous of our sex were excited to start this new sport which allowed them to move…thank you for highlighting this time in women’s history!

    Liked by 1 person

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