This two piece tennis ensemble, comprising a tunic jacket and ankle length skirt, is a well-preserved example of the type of tennis costume worn by women in the late 19th century. At this time, tennis dresses were more likened to walking dresses, worn with black stockings, gloves, laced shoes with heels and a hat. Although the dress may appear to have little consideration for function and practicality by modern standards, the skirt in this piece is actually fitted with eyelets and hooks for folding the bottom up when playing. Some dresses also featured sewn-in pockets and aprons for holding the racquet and balls. As opposed to fashionable dress, the bodice in this ensemble is also unboned and the skirt features large box pleats which allows for more vigorous movement.
Tennis only started to be played by women as late as the 1870s, after Major Wingfield patented the modern tennis court in 1873, and the sport became fashionable alongside other recreational pursuits like cycling and riding. This particular style of tennis dress with an ankle length skirt was popular until 1910 when garments became lighter and less restrictive. The short skirt, however, did not formally appear until 10 years later when French tennis player, Suzanne Lenglen, appeared on the courts at Wimbledon, not only with a short white skirt, but also a tight fitting top, fur coat and make-up! Her attire was described by American tennis player, Bill Tilden, as "a cross between a prima donna and a streetwalker"!
It is rare to find such beautifully preserved examples of late 19th century tennis costume as this. It complements other closely dated tennis items in the Museum's collection, such as a pair of tennis shoes from 1886 and photographs from 1850-1900, and provides a nice contrast with a 21st century women's tennis outfit in the collection designed and made by Puma in 2002.
Assistant Curator, Design and Society