When Serena Williams steps out on the hard courts of the US Open on Monday for what could be her last tournament, she will do so in a little black (tennis) dress with long sheer sleeves, a six-layer skirt, a skirt for every US Open title she’s won, and a bodice that sparkles with a galaxy of stars. It’s a dress made for a supernova farewell. It’s appropriate, in more ways than one. If you’re not paying attention to the symbolism, you’re missing the point.
After all, Ms. Williams revealed her plans to end her tennis career in an essay published not in ESPN, Sports Illustrated or Tennis Week, but in the September issue of Fashion. Although the choice, with its accompanying cover photograph of Ms Williams in a variety of evening gowns, was met with some bewilderment in the sports world, it should have surprised no one.
Since turning professional in 1995, Ms. Williams, 40, has used self-presentation as effectively as any athlete as a weapon of change; what she used was as carefully honed and considered part of her long game as any serve or forehand. She broke barriers of race, age, and background, and broke the old tennis dress codes.
He always had a bigger plan than just sports, and it was an intent embedded in the images he helped create. It was never just about adding a stripe here, a little neon there. It was about self-realization, expanding the definition of what was possible in countless ways (physically, professionally) and who got to decide.
Her on-court wardrobe was a “visual manifestation of her fun, her energy and her breaking-barrier mentality,” said Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, the editor who styled the Vogue shoot. She was calculated to succinctly point out, said Tania Flynn, Nike’s vice president of womenswear design, “that women deserve to be seen.”
As the rare black woman in tennis, and one with a backstory and body that didn’t fit the sport’s favorite mythology, Ms. Williams knew “how many eyes and how many cameras were on her,” said John Hoke, Nike’s director of design, who has been working with her for nearly 20 years.
And if, said Gerald Marzorati, author of the 2021 book “Seeing Serena,” “attention was going to be paid, his attitude was: I’m going to be a subject of that attention, rather than an object.”
If people were watching and judging, you might as well use that scrutiny to not only advance your tennis career, but change the playing field for everyone. His racket was one way to do it. Fashion was another.
Breaking the old codes
When Ms. Williams and her older sister, Venus, arrived on the scene, women’s tennis dress, like tennis itself, was still stuck in the mire of tradition, associated with an outdated image of a blonde, pigtailed pixie. horse running around a pitch in a skimpy “skirt” or “dress” that was like a theoretical holdover from the longer dresses that came before.
It was very gendered, in the most stereotypical way (after all, this is a sport where, until the late 20th century, female tennis players wore frilly, doll-like bloomers under their fake skirts) and very white. Literally, in the case of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, also known as Wimbledon, where the player’s dress code specifies the color of clothing.
It was, said Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History,” “an extension of the country club. And the dressing room reflects that.”
Sure, fashion had been an occasional tool of disruption ever since Suzanne Lenglen shortened her hems in the 1920s and “there were lines of people waiting to see her play Wimbledon in a skirt above her ankles,” said Marzorati.
Sure, on the men’s side, Andre Agassi ushered in a moment of change in his mullet, jean shorts, and neon, shocking the powers that be. (He boycotted Wimbledon for three years because of the dress code.) And many of the sport’s earlier black players — Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison — dressed, Ford said, in “respectability politics” style, to fit in. in.
“Stylistically, tennis has historically been a very conservative sport, a gentleman’s sport,” said Ms. Karefa-Johnson. “Of course, all of these semantics really only reinforce latent white supremacy in sport and justify the exclusion of any person or body outside of the prescribed participants and audience. Serena blew up that fallacy.” She refused to be anything other than herself.
Ford called it “a different way of integrating a sport.”
It started when Mrs Williams and her sister walked out to court in beads and braids and continued through the years, becoming more and more deliberate and political. Mr. Hoke of Nike, where there is a design building named after Ms. Williams, said that on a scale of 1 to 10 of involvement with her clothes, she is a 10.
If at first her interest was simply to express a certain joy in dressing, immersing herself in streetwear trends with denim and studs and catwalk trends with snakeskin and mesh, she became a woman of power and having the profile to denounce perceived injustice. and inequality; about being a mother and an activist; about, as Nike’s Ms. Flynn put it, “the message.”
Sometimes literally, like when Ms Williams wore a black and white crop top and tennis skirt with a matching trapeze jacket and maxi skirt to the French Open in 2019 peppered with the French words for ” Mother, champion, queen, goddess.” (It was created with Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, a designer who also understood something about opening doors and who became close friends with Ms. Williams before her death in 2021.)
And sometimes more implicitly, as with the black catsuit she wore to the French Open in 2018, which was designed in part to control potential blood clots after a difficult childbirth and in part to reflect the status of working mothers. like “superheroes”, as he said at the time. She unleashed such a firestorm (French officials deemed it a dress code violation) that her next outfit, a single-sleeved tutu she wore to the US Open and also designed by Mr. Abloh, seemed like a response to those who considered the previous look. not “girly” enough.
It got to the point, Marzorati said, that “seeing Serena come out of the tunnel onto the court and find out what she was wearing” was an event in itself.
But while viewers may have been eyeing the outfit, they ended up absorbing the point.
Breaking the fashion barrier
Fashion and tennis were intertwined for Ms. Williams practically from the beginning. If her father, Richard Williams, created the template for her athletic career, her mother, Oracene Price, laid the foundation for her clothing appreciation.
Mrs. Price taught her to sew when she was two or three years old, and Mrs. Williams has said“I used to see her put those old Vogue patterns on the floor and cut the outfits.”
Ms. Williams jumped into real Vogue in 1998, when she and her sister posed for black-and-white magazine Carolina Herrera, an appearance that heralded the start of a friendship with Vogue editor (and tennis superfan) Anna Wintour. , who has passed, the description of Mrs. Williams, formative.
“She’s a special person and I absolutely adore her,” Mrs Williams told Naomi Campbell at her youtube show, “No filter with Naomi”. “I love being around her. I love the brain of it.”
In return, in an email, Ms. Wintour called Ms. Williams “fearless” in her playing, her wardrobe, and her ability to “blur boundaries.”
She certainly blurred some boundaries for Vogue, becoming the first black female athlete on the cover of Vogue, in 2012, along with soccer player Hope Solo and swimmer Ryan Lochte, and since then appearing on more Vogue covers than any other female athlete.
He had solo versions in 2015, 2018 and 2022 (the latter two with her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.). Mrs. Wintour took her to fashion shows: Mrs. Williams recounted a trip to Milan on Instagram — and not only suggested her wedding dress designer, Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton, but also consulted every sketch.
In 2018, Ms. Williams followed her sister, Venus, who had started her own fashion line in 2007, into clothing design (both attended design school at the Fort Lauderdale Art Institute, though Serena did not attend). graduated) and in 2020 he announced his S is for Serena line at New York Fashion Week, a show that began with a fireside chat between Ms. Williams and Ms. Wintour.
The year before, she had hosted the Met Gala, alongside Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, wearing Nikes with her Versace. The following year, she created the Serena Williams Design Crew at Nike to lower the barriers to entry for young designers of color from non-traditional backgrounds. She even walked Paris Fashion Week last March, for the Off-White Virgil Abloh tribute show.
Before all that, though, in 2006, Chris Evert, a player who dominated women’s tennis in the 1970s and 1980s and has since become president of the USTA Foundation and cancer research activist, wrote a “open letter” to Ms Williams in Tennis magazine, suggesting that she had let such “distractions” take tennis away from her.
“I appreciate that becoming a whole person is important to you,” Ms. Evert wrote. “Still, one question lingers: does he ever consider his place in history? Is it something that matters to you?
From today’s point of view, it’s an obsolete query. Those “distractions” are, in fact, part of the foundation of Ms. Williams’s legacy. Not to mention a sign, perhaps, of what is to come.