The last time Serena Williams wore a full-body catsuit to a Grand Slam tournament at the French Open in 2018, it practically sparked a riot.
The Gallic tennis forces, so shocked when they replaced the classic little white dresses – if female tennis clothing can even be called “dresses” since they are shorter than most tunics – with a black Nike bodysuit, didn’t just do so They clutched her breasts in horror and actually introduced a dress code that specifically excluded such outfits. “You have to respect the game and the place,” said Bernard Giudicelli, President of the French Tennis Federation.
But then of course Ms. Williams did it again, opting for a short romper at the Australian Open in 2019, a look reminiscent of her first appearance at the US Open in 2002 when she wore a short black bodysuit (that was they back then) sponsored by Puma). That look became a kind of lightning rod and a crucial moment in the conversation about women’s bodies – especially black women’s bodies – tennis, power, and who gets all that to the police.
And now that she is playing at the height of her strength in the semifinals of the Australian Open, chasing after her record-breaking 24th Grand Slam and defying all odds, she is wearing one again. It’s even more noticeable this time around: an asymmetrical one-legged graphic catsuit with pink, red, and black color blocks.
Even in the wilder fashion context of the Australian Open, where the players have felt freer in the past to express themselves on the pitch in clothing – even in the context of Ms. Williams’ own story with tennis clothes, to which a pleated skirt with a studded top and a tutu – it was an unmistakable declaration of intent.
She has changed the game forever. In several ways.
Ms. Williams said the style of this particular court catsuit pays homage to Florence Griffith Joyner, route star and three-time Olympic gold medalist Flo-Jo, who won her 1984 Olympic silver medal in a one-legged catsuit. Ms. Griffith Joyner also loved the nail art and the incorporation of fashion into her running uniforms (which were in fact the opposite of “uniform”).
Drawing that direct line to another great black athlete during Black History Month expands the impact (and import) of Ms. Williams’ election beyond the court and makes her even more contemplated. Flo-Jo believed in the power of self-expression as a form of strength and in asserting one’s place in the world. Ms. Williams lives that too.
After all, she originally wore the black catsuit in part because she suffered from blood clots after her pregnancy, and she said the compression of the full-body look helped address the problem. She also said (during a game news conference) that it made her feel “like a warrior, a warrior princess” – “maybe from Wakanda”.
This at a time when many forecasters were wondering how difficult it was for women to return to global tennis dominance after giving birth. Ms. Williams was determined to prove them wrong and set a new precedent. Her choice of court attire just made it obvious – and impossible to ignore.
But the fact that she kept doing it after the first hoo-ha turned a momentary kerfuffle into a cause. After all, the first catsuit worn on the court was modeled by Anne White, who wore a … well, white style to play her first-round match at Wimbledon in 1985. This prompted the tournament manager to suggest that she wear a different outfit the next day. She bowed to the pressure, and that was the end until Ms. Williams appeared in her version less than two decades later.
Ms. Williams didn’t just double up on her original look, however. It tripled on it. And according to the rule of change, one example of something is a coincidence, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend.
What is this trend about? It’s not just about the garment itself. It’s about empowering players to make their decisions on the pitch and breaking old stereotypes about what is and isn’t appropriate for women. And who can decide.
For decades, tennis style was rooted in an arcane notion of femininity, even if other sports left such stereotypes behind. It was slowly being dragged into the 21st century. Ms. Williams just charges the process, forcing everyone to grapple with the issue, from officials to onlookers.
Indeed, thanks to the absurdity of the French Open, the Women’s Tennis Association has introduced a new rule specifically stating: “Leggings and compression shorts with a mid-thigh length may be worn with or without a skirt, shorts or dress.”
So far, this time the catsuit has received a pretty positive response. “Size inspires size” is the general feeling. As Ms. Williams got through the tournament, it has become something of a supersuit: a symbol not only of her physical strength, but also of her strength of character.
Whatever happens to their match against Naomi Osaka, the catsuit has “already won everything” according to one viewer.
“I’ve always wanted to be a superhero, and that’s my way of being a superhero,” Ms. Williams said at that 2018 press conference while wearing the black catsuit. It is that among so many other things. But she is also, as it becomes increasingly clear, the Amelia Bloomer of tennis.