From corsets to culottes – A brief history of tennis fashion

For many, it’s been a tough week to be British, but with the arrival of Wimbledon fortnight, some semblance of peace and order can be found in the tennis enclave of SW19 with its carefully manicured grass courts, tinkle of ice in Pimm’s and, of course, the pristine white attire the All England club still insists is worn by all players. The rule, which upholds Wimbledon’s strong sense of tradition and is one of the things to set it apart from the other grand slam competitions, had its origins in the early days of the game in the nineteenth century when the visibility of sweat, especially on women players, was considered unseemly. White not only disguised this, but gave the impression of freshness, and a century and a half on, the unshakeable rule remains.

Other than the stipulation of white, tennis clothing today combines style with high performance, ensuring complete freedom of movement with breathable, ‘sweat-wicking’ fabrics. It is a world away from the late 19th and early 20th century when lawn tennis gained many converts even though Victorian women would dress in a costume more suited to a garden party underneath which corsets continued to mould the female figure into the desired fashionable shape. A picture we hold of Charlotte “Lottie” Dod, (top left), five times Wimbledon champion from 1893 shows her looking for all the world as if she is about to sit under a parasol to take afternoon tea; her tennis racquet the only indication that she was the period’s leading sportswoman. Any type of exertion and energetic movement in a corset regularly caused the bone and steel to dig into players and draw blood. Nevertheless, many doctors believed the corset was advantageous during sport to ensure all internal organs were kept in place and the support warded against back pain and other such ills. Dorothea Lambert Chambers (above, second from right), seven-time singles champion at Wimbledon in the decade leading up the First World War won her matches wearing a business-like but nevertheless constricting combination of white blouse with tie and shin-length skirt. In 1905, when the young American tennis player May Sutton (later Bundy) (above, second from left), played at Wimbledon, she rolled back her cuffs to reveal her forearms because her sleeves ‘were too long and too hot’. It may seem tame to us, but her action was shocking to many spectators. In her 1910 book, ‘Lawn Tennis for Ladies,’ Mrs Lambert Chambers wrote a chapter on tennis clothing prescriptively advising the wearing of, ‘…a plain gored skirt – not pleated; I think these most unsuitable on court – about four or five inches from the ground. It should just clear your ankles and have plenty of fullness round the hem. Always be careful that the hem is quite level all round; nothing is more untidy than a skirt that dips down at the back or sides – dropping at the back is a little trick a cotton skirt cultivates when it comes home from the laundry. A plain shirt without “frills or furbelows” – if any trimming at all, tucks are the neatest – a collar, a tie, and waistband, go to make an outfit as comfortable and suitable as you could possibly desire.’

She also prescribed thin-soled white ‘gymnasium shoes’, choosing white cotton over heavier, coloured flannel or ‘stuff’ due to its infinitely washable properties and avoiding the wearing of hats. A decade later, the girl who beat Mrs Lambert Chambers in a gruelling 3-set match to take the Wimbledon title in 1919, would revolutionise tennis fashion. Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen presciently brought the youth and vivacity of the 1920s to the tennis court, sporting a succession of lightweight garments; chemise style dresses with pleated skirts, loose, straight cardigans and short-sleeved blouses or V-necked vests (still considered a risqué neckline). Lenglen’s outfits were designed by Jean Patou, the French couturier who pioneered sportswear as fashion and championed the ‘garconne’ look, opening a dedicated sportswear department in his couture store in 1925 and subsequently opening further branches in fashionable resorts such as Deauville and Biarritz. Lenglen’s clothes were embroidered with Patou’s signature, a visible declaration of the creative and commercial bond between designer and sports person and one that remains an essential relationship in the sportswear industry today. Patou was to continue as the go-to designer for a leisured lifestyle; in 1927, dialling in to the new trend for tanning with the launch of the first suntan oil, Huile de Chaldee in 1927 and a fragrance called, quite simply, ‘Sport’ the following year. Lenglen meanwhile, who topped off her on-court attire with a white fur coat (below, second from left), was hailed as a fashion revolutionary. London department store, Selfridges drafted her in to design a range of tennis clothes for them in 1933 (below left). Elizabeth Ryan, a contemporary of Lenglen and holder of 19 doubles titles at Wimbledon, said of her, “All women players should go on their knees in thankfulness to Suzanne for delivering them from the tyranny of corsets.” Ryan had witnessed the drying rack in the dressing rooms at Wimbledon where blood stained corsets were hung.

Tennis, perhaps because of the high profile of women players, continued to be a showcase for the development of sporting style. When the Spanish player Lili D’Alvarez wore a divided skirt designed by Elsa Schiaparelli at Wimbledon in 1931, (above, second from right) the garment caused a sensation, causing many magazines to note how it also ‘divided opinion’. The actress Gladys Cooper appeared in The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News in June the same year (above right), ‘trouser-skirted’ in an outfit she was planning to wear to Lady Cranfield’s tennis party at West Hall. Around the same time, some daring ladies began to wear shorts to play in, including one Mrs G. E. Tomblin, spotted in a 1932 issue of The Sketch wearing them while at a club in Chiswick (below, second from left), though the same magazine asked in one fashion column in March that year, ‘Can shorts rival these graceful frocks for the courts?’ (below, second from right). It’s an unsurprising viewpoint considering Aristoc were still advertising silk stockings suitable for the tennis court in 1933 (below right). It would be the pioneering American Alice Marble who was the first to wear them at Wimbledon in 1937 (below left).

By the 1950s another big personality was beginning to dominate the tennis fashion scene with his wildly feminine styles. 6 ‘ 7” Cuthbert Collingwood “Ted” Tinling (1910-1990) was an English tennis player and referee, already firmly doing the social round by the early 1930s. Suffering from respiratory problems, he had been sent to the French Riviera as a teenager and began to play tennis on the courts of the Cannes, eventually becoming Lenglen’s referee. We discovered a photograph of him from this time with Lord Charles Hope on the courts there in a 1931 volume of The Tatler (below left). Tinling’s playful, fashionable, flirty designs were worn by the majority of major tennis stars in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, from Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova, but he is probably best known for the notorious frilly knickers worn by Gussie Moran in 1949, the scandal of which led to him being dismissed from his position as player liaison at Wimbledon (he would be welcomed back in 1982). Within our archive, there are some fabulous sixties designs by him featured in the swinging, ‘London Life’ magazine (three pictures below).

Despite the forays of tennis stars such as Serena Williams into the 21st century world of sportswear design, female tennis fashion today feels more serious and functional than the glory days of Tinling, though thankfully, the styles of over a century ago are consigned to the club’s excellent museum. How interesting it would be to see modern-day tennis players try to play in the corsets and long skirts of May Sutton, Lottie Dod and Dorothea Lambert Chambers. One wonders, when the mercury rises on Centre court, could they endure a three-setter in the searing heat?

Adapted from an excerpt taken from ‘Retro Fashion’ by Lucinda Gosling, published by New Holland.

Click here to see a wider range of tennis fashion images.

The Dolly Sisters and Mr Selfridge

In the fourth and final series of ITV’s ‘Mr Selfridge’ currently showing on Friday evenings, two new characters are introduced – The Dolly Sisters. We’ve invited contributor Gary Chapman, owner of the wonderful Jazz Age Club Collection and biographer of The Dolly Sisters, to provide us with an introduction to this fascinating duo.

Welcome to the wonderful, glittering world of the delectable, dancing Dolly Sisters.

‘To me they appeared to be marvellous birds of paradise….If one could believe the tales, thrones were about to crumble and multi-millionaires willing to go broke for love of them…. In London under Cochran they were lionised. No Mayfair party seemed complete until they arrived, chattering like magpies, one taking up when the other paused for breath and trailing chinchilla or foxes or sables as if they were dish rags.’

The actress June in her autobiography The Glass Ladder

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Image numbers (left to right): 10503017, 10235725, 10503053 & 10503018

The last series of the hit TV show ‘Mr Selfridge’, will bring the Dolly Sisters to a much wider, global audience. Let’s hope viewers realise that, like all the characters, they will be portrayed in the context of a make-believe drama, bearing only vague resemblance to their true, glamorous story. For a start, they were not blonde and they were identical twins – unlike the unrelated actresses who portray them in the TV show. Also, only one sister was the object of Harry Selfridge’s affection, not both of them.

The dark and exotic-looking Dolly Sisters first met Harry Selfridge at the Kit-Kat Club in London in the summer of 1925 when they were at the height of their fame and fortune. They had already conquered Broadway, London and Paris with their dainty dancing, glamorous good looks and immense charm and were, quite simply, legends in their own time on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born in Budapest, Hungary 25th October 1892, Janszieka (Jenny) and Roszicka (Rosie) were keen dancers but their father did not approve of his daughters becoming entertainers. Due to the unfortunate deterioration of his business he moved to America where the girls arrived with their mother in 1905, followed by their younger brother Edward (later to be a successful stage and screen choreographer). In New York, they began to earn their living as entertainers to help make ends meet. From their rather humble origins they swiftly danced their way to fame and fortune on Broadway finding work with the great Ziegfeld and the Shubert Brothers. They were close friends with the elite of Broadway and Hollywood and became the essential prerequisite for any Broadway festivity. Sporting sleek black bobs, their identical appearance and chic sense of style was a magnet for dress designers, significantly Lucile, Jeanne Lanvin and Jean Patou, who provided costumes and wardrobes for the Dolly Sisters in what was often a mutually convenient arrangement of celebrity endorsement.

Rosie married songwriter Jean Schwartz (1913) and Jenny married comedian and entertainer Harry Fox a year later. However, none of their friends was more important than the millionaire Diamond Jim Brady who indulged their every whim and taught them the art of a flutter with the horses. Such was his infatuation, he once bought them a Rolls Royce wrapped up in ribbon.

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In 1920, they abandoned their husbands and conquered London in shows produced by Albert de Courville and C.B. Cochran, showing off such numbers as the Dollies and the Collies and the Pony Trot. But they found Paris, Cannes, Deauville and Le Touquet far more to their liking and in Paris they appeared in a string spectacular revues with Paris Sans Viole (1923), Oh Les Belles Filles (1923), Paris En Fleurs (1925), A Vol D’Oiseau (1926) and Paris – New York (1927).

Earning incredible salaries, the Dollies invested in property and vast collections of jewellery. ‘Behung with baubles like a couple of Christmas trees’ they were renowned as the most extravagant gamblers in Europe.

The toast of, first London, and then Parisian society, they were romantically linked with dozens of named and unnamed men of title or wealth, including the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VIII), King Alphonso of Spain, Henri Letellier and Viscomte de La Rochefoucauld. Each vied with the other in an elaborate game of falling in love, engagement, rumours of marriage and then cold feet.

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Image numbers (left to right): 10503046, 10503060 & 10503038

When Jenny met Harry Selfridge, Rosie was engaged to the French socialite Francois Dupre, but Jenny had another prominent suitor in the form of Jacques Wittouck – a wealthy Belgian businessman. All was not simple and clear-cut. From 1925, Selfridge and Wittouck would be inextricably linked with Jenny for the next ten years, with constant rumours of marriage as each took it in turn to be her escort as they vied for her attention in a rather unusual menage à trois.

One of the oft-quoted pieces of mush leveled against them was that they had ‘ruined’ Selfridge and were ‘gold-diggers’. Let’s get this straight right away – Selfridge’s fall from grace and his ruination must be attributed to himself, no other. He was obsessed with all things beautiful, not least glamorous women, whom he showered with gifts. He also had a passion for gambling and was more than reckless. He did give Jenny expensive gifts, property, shares and aid her in a business venture. But she was also known for her acts of generosity and kindness as much for her jewels and furs. Their attraction was also re-enforced by their mutual love of gambling. This is the best description of their relationship ‘I should say that he saw at least part of his own daring and acquisitive image reflective in her tingling absorption in games of chance. She may have seen in him the father image, approving her daring.’

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Image numbers (left to right): 10503042 & 10089352

Rosie, never married Dupre but instead, ran off and married, and then swiftly divorced, Sir Mortimer Davis Jr, the heir to an estate worth $150m and affectionately called ‘The Fat Boy.’ Much more gossip, scandal, and ultimately tragedy followed.

Although they were not the first sister act to appear on the stage, the Dolly Sisters were certainly the most famous and paved the way for many of the subsequent duos and trios that proliferated in their wake. Even the Gabor sisters followed in the Dollies’ dainty footsteps.

When they retired in late 1927, numerous imitators took their place, but none were more outrageous than the Norwegian Rocky Twins, two boys who dressed up in drag as the Dollies and parodied their routines.

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Image numbers (left to right): 10503012, 10503073, 10503010, 10503024 & 10503071

Living close to the rhythm of the time the Dollies were adept at always being in the right place at the right time in the company of the right people. It was a recipe that was to maximize their success. As true icons of the Jazz Age, their lives mirrored luxurious ‘society’ on both sides of the Atlantic and their story provides a fascinating glimpse of this privileged world that was eventually eroded by the Second World War.

The TV show ‘Mr Selfridge’ can only introduce the Dolly Sisters with ‘cameo’ appearances, a little taster of what was a much bigger and more fascinating true story, every bit as dramatic and engrossing as the best fiction.

For a selection of our Dolly Sisters images please click here.

Gary Chapman is the author of the only biography about the Dolly Sisters and has also compiled a lavish picture book about them. He is an expert on the Jazz Age and has a private collection of material solely licensed through Mary Evans Picture Library.

 

The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz age

The Dolly Sisters in Pictures

www.jazzageclub.com

www.eddittpublishing.com