French officials have announced they will ban Serena Williams’s signature black catsuit from future French Open tournaments. The athlete’s response shows deep emotional intelligence.

Even if you don’t care much about tennis, you may have heard about Serena Williams turning heads at the French Open in May with her black, full-body “catsuit.” The garment, specially designed for her, is as much a statement as a fashion statement. Although the suit was designed before Black Panther came out, she says it makes her think of Wakanda, the fictional nation in the movie.

For Williams and her millions of fans, it has come to symbolize women’s empowerment. “It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically, with their body to come back and have confidence and to believe in themselves,” she told The Guardian. She added, “I always wanted to be a superhero and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero.”

On top of that, the catsuit serves a medical purpose. Williams suffered severe health problems and notably blood clots after the recent birth of her first child. The catsuit provides compression, preventing new clots from forming.

None of this was good enough for the officials who preside over the French Open tournament, however. In an interview with Tennis magazine, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli announced that the catsuit would no longer be permitted at the tournament. “I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” he said, adding that Williams’s catsuit “will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.”

What are these new rules the Federation is putting in place? Will it, for instance, require all white outfits, as Wimbledon has for years? That’s a simple rule that Williams followed by wearing a white outfit and white compression leggings to that tournament.

They haven’t even explained what it is that goes too far about Williams’s catsuit. The fact that it’s black? That it has a red belt? That it’s form-fitting? Although that seems an odd objection in a sport where miniskirts are the norm.

 

Williams herself called a halt to hostilities with a serene response that lives up to her name. During a press conference, she assured reporters that she had already talked to the French Open officials and “We have a great relationship.” With a smile, she added, “Everything’s fine, guys.”

Asked about her clotting issue, she explained that she had since found other ways to address it without wearing the catsuit. Besides, she said, “When it comes to fashion, you don’t want to be a repeat offender. So it’ll be a while before this even has to come up again.”

She could have been incensed at the unstated gender and racial bias implicit in a ban that seems to single her out. She could have ridden the wave of growing social-media outrage to put pressure on the French Open to reconsider its rules, or at least write actual rules instead of literally casting itself as the fashion police. Instead, she beautifully embodied Michelle Obama’s advice, “When they go low, you go high.”

 

The Victorian era gave us tennis whites

One reason Giudicelli’s decision to ban Williams’s catsuit has raised eyebrows is because, unlike Wimbledon and its all-white dress code, the French Open has traditionally been a tournament where players can express themselves through fashion. In fact, in 1990 when tournament organizers considered the all-white route, Andre Agassi, known for his colorful ensembles, took offense.

 

“Somebody doesn’t like me,” he said. “The idea is to make tennis enjoyable for people. Why don’t they take a survey? Instead of asking some old guy behind a desk.”

Tennis player Andre Agassi was known for his colorful tennis attire.
Andre Agassi in 1991. He boycotted Wimbledon because of its all-white dress code. Hardt/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Tennis whites only became a phenomenon because of Victorian notions of class and hygiene. The sport first caught on in class-conscious Victorian England, where white clothing was associated with wealth and privilege. The lower classes, who worked with their hands, couldn’t wear the color without getting dirty. Victorians also believed that wearing white allowed athletes to sweat with little notice, although women tennis players dressed in a manner that prevented them from real physical exertion.

“When Victorian women played tennis in the 1880s and 1890s, they were wearing their street clothes, which included heavy undergarments like corsets, bustles, and petticoats, and voluminous skirts that grazed the ground,” fashion historian Keren Ben-Horin told Allure.

In the 1900s, women tennis players wore “floor-length skirts, stockings, and long-sleeved tops,” according to Allure. But as the decades went on, new fashions dictated what they wore. That meant flapper-inspired tennis attire in the 1920s, and, later, ’50s-style cardigans and ’60s mod.

In the first half of the 20th century, tennis fashion was not without controversy. Skirt lengths shortened, and American tennis player Gertrude Moran faced backlash for wearing a skirt that revealed a pair of lace shorts underneath. Because of the shorts, she was accused of bringing “vulgarity and sin into tennis.”

 

A white catsuit makes headlines at Wimbledon

Serena Williams’s catsuit may have caused a sensation at the 2018 French Open, but it wasn’t the first time Williams had worn a catsuit during competition. She also wasn’t the first woman tennis player to wear a full-length bodysuit during a Grand Slam contest. During the first round of the 1985 Wimbledon tournament, tennis star Anne White heeded organizers’ all-white rule but defied tradition by wearing a white catsuit instead of a tennis skirt. White’s opponent, Pam Shriver, insulted White’s spandex suit, calling it the “most bizarre, stupid-looking thing I’ve ever seen on a tennis court.” Wimbledon officials apparently agreed and told White not to wear it again to the tournament.