Academic journal article Journal of Contemporary Athletics

From Tennis Skirt to Catsuit: A Qualitative Analysis of Serena Williams' Impact on Women's Tennis Fashion

Academic journal article Journal of Contemporary Athletics

From Tennis Skirt to Catsuit: A Qualitative Analysis of Serena Williams' Impact on Women's Tennis Fashion

Article excerpt


Dating back to the middle of the 21st century, it is apparent that fashion in the sport arena has evolved and changed with each passing decade. For example, society has become conditioned to understand that three white stripes are synonymous with adidas, that the swoosh equals Nike, that long, decorated fingernails and eccentric outfits were celebrated in making Florence Griffith Joyner more than just a runner, and what red means on Sunday for golf. As appealing detail meets blood and sweat, fashion is refining the face of sport, and it is becoming less common for athletes to have to sacrifice style while playing their sport.

The fashion and tennis worlds have collided and intertwined so much since the early 1990s that top athletes are now some of the most fashion-forward figures (Melocco, 2004b). Examples of the evolution of women's fashion in tennis include athletes such as Suzanne Lenglen, who in 1922 abandoned the traditional long skirts and hats when she took the court in a short skirt (Thomas, 2001); Chris Evert, who in 1987 paused her match to look for her tennis bracelet, which was a term coined after this incident involving Evert (Conway, 2002); and Serena Williams, who sported a faux leather, skintight, black catsuit in the 2002 U.S. Open (Schultz, 2005).

Despite the impact that fashion seemingly has on sport in general, and specifically in tennis, little empirical evidence has emerged in the area of sport fashion. The purpose of this research is to examine what impact, if any, Serena Williams' fashion had on other female tennis players from 2002 until 2010.

Williams was chosen as the analytical subject and independent standard for sport fashion in women's tennis because she is consistently ranked as one of the top female tennis players and sport figures in the world, and she is recognized for embodying sport fashion on the tennis court and fashionable attire off the tennis court (Associated Press, 2009; Brown, 2004). Tugwell (2008) argued that Williams is an American success story who crossed over many boundaries, becoming an icon in sports, fashion, design and modeling.


Fashions in dress are ever-changing elements of our day-to-day lives. According to Sproles (1979), "To a naïve observer, consumers' acceptance of changing fashions may appear to be unpredictable, capricious, even trivial. To the sophisticated analyst, however, each fashion a consumer selects has important meanings: ... a medium for individualistic self- expression, a manifestation of a changing sociocultural environment..." (p. 3). Sproles argues that through the introduction of fashion, to public acceptance, and eventual obsolescence, this fashion process is dynamic in its life cycle. Several behavioral science models of the fashion process exist, touching on different aspects of fashion: sociology, psychology, and communications, to name a few (Solomon, 1985). A model/theory that is regarded as the classic explanation of fashion is the trickle-down theory (Carter, 2003).

According to Solomon (1985), the trickle-down theory originated from German social philosopher Georg Simmel in 1904. The theory portrays two conflicting principles, imitation and differentiation, as a force for innovation. Subordinate social groups find the dress of superordinate groups appealing, and therefore look to imitate it. Superordinate groups, wishing to remain set apart, fall away from their once held style, and differentiate themselves to another (Solomon, 1985). Carter (2003) notes that the clothing of the upper classes signifies power and authority to the lower orders, making their fashion attractive to these lower groups. It is thought that the trickle-down theory could effectively convey the impact of Williams' fashion on other female tennis players.

Examination of the impact of Williams' fashion on other female tennis players through the lens of the trickle-down theory seems reasonable. …

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