Serena Williams’ French Open Outfit Sparks Controversy

By, Ellen O. ’20

Serena Williams is arguably one of the best athletes of all time. So why does it matter what she wears? Williams, 37, is sitting on top of twenty-three Grand Slam singles titles, four Olympic gold medals, and seven Wimbledon wins, all without the help of a personal stylist.

William, a new mom, showed up to the 2018 French Open wearing a black catsuit that helped her blood to circulate. After a tough pregnancy, she had developed a blood clot in her leg and had taken to wearing leggings to help her blood flow. In addition to its health benefits, many tennis fans and fans of Williams liked the outfit because it looked like a superhero costume and thus highlighted the athlete’s hard work and superhero-like skill. 

French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, however, was not a fan. Giudicelli banned Williams from wearing the outfit again, and even said that she was “[going] too far” and lacking respect for “the game and the place” (Vox). Given tennis’ long history of racism and sexism, Giudicelli’s comments were inflammatory. Tennis started as a sport for wealthy, high-class white people and continued with that reputation for many years. A very common sport at country clubs, most tennis venues have an all-white dress code.

Ashley K. ’20, a member of the Harbor Head Tennis Club, thinks “it is unfair for Serena to be mistreated because her catsuit serves a medical purpose, and there is no rule in existence saying that competitors couldn’t wear a catsuit.” She believes that “it is no different from wearing knee braces or elbow braces” to a game or match. Additionally, Ashley vouches that at Harbor Head Tennis Club, players are technically required to wear “50% white,” but this rule is “loosely enforced.” Of course, maintaining respect for existing rules and guidelines is very important, but the problem with Williams’ French Open experience was not the dress code. 

The French Open, with a more relaxed dress code than many other competitions, is seen in the tennis world as an opportunity for competitors to show off personal style. Williams was singled out for her outfit, which showed off her muscular figure. This incident is a perfect example of the policing of the wardrobe of certain people because of their gender, race, or body type. Williams, a black woman, should be allowed to wear whatever helps her perform best, especially if the outfit serves a medical purpose. Giudicelli’s comments on Williams’ outfit disrespect her as an athlete and as a competitor by reframing her as an object to look at. This ban has layers of offense because it is racist, sexist, and judgmental against Williams’ body. 

The incident is especially problematic because of the fact that, throughout Williams’ highly successful career, she has faced heavy scrutiny for her body and her look. She has faced public jokes about her build from other competitors, comparisons to men and gorillas from people, including even international Tennis Presidents (CNN). 

The problem is not with a harsh uniform dress code; it is with unequal and arbitrary enforcement of rules. Of course, the sport of tennis and its various venues deserve respect, but the fact is that Williams was treated unfairly, especially because her outfit served a medical function.