Like it or not, Wimbledon hits all-white high

Written by New York Times | Wimbledon, England | Updated: Jul 6 2014, 20:57pm hrs
Wimbledon has long required players to wear outfits that are predominantly in white or almost entirely in white. But this year, a 10-part decree was introduced in the competitors guide stating that white does not include off-white or cream and allowing only a single trim of color no wider than one centimeter. The almost-all-white rule now explicitly covers caps, headbands, bandannas, wristbands, shoes and even any undergarments that either are or can be visible during play (including due to perspiration).

Richard Lewis, chief executive of the All England Club, said the time was right to make accessories subject to the policy used for shirts, shorts and socks. Small sponsor logos may include colour, and medical supports can be colored if absolutely necessary, the guide said.

The usually unflappable Roger Federer, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, sounded exasperated this week when asked about the rules. White, white, full-on white, he said. I think its very strict. My personal opinion: I think its too strict.

Last year, tournament officials told Federer that the colour of the soles of his shoes was too much and that he had to change his shoes for the next match. If you look at the pictures of Edberg, Becker, there was some colours, Federer added, referring to the Wimbledon champions Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.

The more specific dress code, which clothing designers and players were notified of months in advance, has been strictly enforced. In the qualifying rounds, the American Rhyne Williams was told to cover the black underside of his hat brim with white tape before he could continue playing. Even Martina Navratilova, a nine-time Wimbledon champion, was told that the pale blue stripe on the skirt she was wearing for an invitational doubles match was against the rules.

Navratilova questioned how a tradition was being upheld if the type of clothing she had been allowed to wear for decades, some of which is in the Wimbledon Museum, was suddenly forbidden. I think theyve gone too far, she said.

The crackdown comes after years of clothing manufacturers adding more pops of colour to Wimbledon ensembles in an effort to stand out in a sea of white. In 2010, Serena Williams wore an off-white dress with red trim and bright red undershorts. She described the outfit as a tribute to strawberries and cream, Wimbledons traditional snack. When she won her fifth Wimbledon title, in 2012, Williams accented her white dress with a headband, wristbands and undershorts in magenta. Williamss opponent in the final, Agnieszka Radwanska, wore black undershorts. Victoria Azarenka, Williamss semifinal opponent, wore undershorts that were bright blue. Marion Bartoli won last years womens final while wearing a beige headband.

One of the tipping points for the rule change might have come last year, when Federer wore white shoes with orange soles for his first-round match. Tournament officials told him that the colour was too much and that he had to change his shoes for the next match. Tennis whites became a phenomenon in the late 1800s to prevent the appearance of unseemly sweat stains as the sport became increasingly popular at social gatherings.

One problem which simply had to be addressed very early on was that of perspiration, Valerie Warren wrote in Tennis Fashion: Over 125 Years of Costume Change. As increased skill at the game led to more movement on court, this in turn led to the dreaded problem of perspiration causing the appearance of embarrassing damp patches on coloured fabrics. It was quite unthinkable that a lady should be seen to perspire!

Wearing white at Wimbledon was a matter of tradition, not stipulation, for the next six decades. Ted Tinling, a British player who pioneered fashions in womens tennis after his retirement, made one of the first introductions of colour at Wimbledon in 1947 when he sewed short trims of light blue and pink on to the hems of dresses for the British player Joy Gannon.

In his memoir Sixty Years in Tennis, Tinling recalled the uproar caused by a similar dress he made for Betty Hilton the next year when she played in the Wightman Cup, a team competition held at Wimbledon. Hazel Wightman, the namesake of the event and a matriarchal figure in American tennis in that era, objected to the intrusion of colour and even suggested that Hilton had lost because she was self-conscious about the colour on her dress.

During his five Wimbledon title runs, Bjorn Borg wore a white shirt with green pinstripes and a navy collar, which became a popular seller for Fila. The next day, Wightman asked the Wimbledon committee to ban the dresses, and in 1949 there were signs in the Wimbledon dressing rooms saying, Competitors are required to wear all-white clothing.

Tinling would venture into colour again in 1962, when he made Maria Bueno a dress with a lining in shocking pink. The next year, Wimbledon made it a condition of entry that the competitors clothing had to be predominantly in white throughout, a vaguely worded rule that was written in all capital letters and enforced unpredictably, but carried the threat of disqualification if a player failed to comply.

When the United States Open became the first international tournament to allow coloured apparel, in 1972, Wimbledon did not budge. Even a decade later, the competitors guide said, The British Public still likes to see tennis and cricket played in whites.

Still, large swatches of color on shirts and dresses showed up at the tournament, and players enjoyed seeing how far the rule could be bent.