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Smiling players in a women's tennis league, 1905.
A cheerful group of players in a Women’s Tennis League, 1905. Photograph from the Harris and Ewing Collection, Prints and Photographs.

Something for Everyone in the Library’s Historic Photo Collections: Tennis

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One of the most absorbing and interesting things I get to do at the Library is to explore the amazing collections in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room (P&P) both onsite and online. Regardless of the topic I’m researching, there’s bound to be a wealth of relevant images in the P&P online catalog (PPOC) that represent subjects in several different ways. Take tennis, for example. If you’re a fan of the game, summer is full of exciting tournaments to watch, from Wimbledon to Washington D.C.’s own Citi Open. There is plenty of material about the sport throughout the collections, but the photos in PPOC showing how radically tennis clothing has changed over the years really caught my eye. This post is the first of several that will explore PPOC through a particular lens. We hope it will inspire families to do the same from home. Whatever your interest might be, PPOC delivers!

Seven male players posing with rackets, 1890 - 1910.
Lawn Tennis players in the sport’s early years. There are no moustaches to rival these in the modern men’s game!
Photograph by Charles Henry Currier, Prints & Photographs.

Tennis caught on as a popular pastime in America in the late 1800s. This 1881 article describes the game’s origins, and attributes its popularity to the “mingling of the sexes”, and being “picturesque” and “invigorating”. The piece also describes how tennis “affords a fresh and admirable field for the display of miracles of millinery and marvels of hosiery” – demonstrating that fashion has always been an important part of the game. That’s still the case today, when fans eagerly anticipate the new outfits that top players unveil at each of the four annual Grand Slam tournaments.

A woman playing tennis in a long skirt, hat and tie, 1913.
Miss Frances Lippett playing in a tennis tournament, Chevy Chase, Maryland, 1913.
From the Harris and Ewing Collection, Prints and Photographs.

Given what players wore in the late 1800s and early 1900s, tennis must have been a much more genteel and gentle game than it is now. Looking at this print from the late 19th century, it’s amazing that women could move with any speed at all on court, let alone lunge for balls. Outfits for younger players were just as formal and restrictive, as illustrated in this 1885 clothing ad.  

A woman wearing a large hat while playing tennis, 1910.
Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman playing tennis in 1910. Prints and Photographs.

Changes came quickly and soon tennis wear was far less cumbersome, as is clear from comparing these images from 1891 and 1903  to ones of players Molla Bjurstedt and Ichiya Kumagae in 1915. In 1922, French superstar Suzanne Lenglen won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles in the Wimbledon championships. Her clothing shows just how unencumbered – and presumably – more athletic women were on court, once tight bodices and long skirts were replaced by looser and shorter versions. Competing in Wimbledon just three years later, Ms. Lenglen’s arms were bare and her dress even shorter, showing a glimpse of stocking tops and bare thigh, in line with the styles of the flapper era.

Four women and three men, posing at the net, 1924.
No more playing in neckties for either men or women, in this group shot from 1924.
Photograph from the Harris and Ewing Collection, Prints and Photographs.

The trend for more practical sportswear continued. By 1928, this young woman is wearing ankle socks, which must have been much cooler to play in than long stockings. The elaborate hats of earlier years are gone; her simplified headgear sits snugly on her head and keeps her hair out of the way, as did the wraps favored by Lenglen and other players. By the 1930’s, visors made an appearance, restraining hair and keeping sun out of the eyes at the same time. Alice Marble, a truly remarkable woman both on and off the court, wears a visor and shorts in this set of images from 1937.

By 1942, Washington D.C. teen Sally Dessez was playing in a skirt that allowed as much freedom of movement as any 21st century tennis outfit. Changes were evident in the professional game too. Of course, the skill and athleticism of trailblazing champions like Althea Gibson and Billy Jean King enabled them to reach new heights in the women’s game in the 50s, 60s and beyond, but the ease with which they could move in the new tennis fashions must have helped. Men’s limbs were liberated too – long trousers and preppy sweaters followed knickerbockers and hats out; figure-hugging shirts and short shorts as worn by Pancho Gonzales in 1956 and Arthur Ashe in 1964 were in.

Two men in tennis clothes, with rackets, 1910.
Tennis players Jock Souter and Charles Williams, 1910.
Photograph from the Bain News Collection, Prints and Photographs.


Here are a few suggestions for tennis-related crafts or activities you and your family might like to try at home. To abide by copyright regulations, please scroll down to the “Rights and Access” paragraph under each image before you use any picture.  If “no known restrictions” shows up in the “Rights Advisory” section you may reproduce and use it as you wish.

  • Create a collage of athletic clothing through the ages – search PPOC for different sports to feature.
  • Giving a sports fan greeting cards or gift tags featuring their favorite game would be a nice personalized touch.
  • Sketch your own design for a 19th century tennis outfit, drawing inspiration from the photos in this post, and from the resources featured below.

Additional Resources:

  • See “How to Play Lawn Tennis” (page 11) for information on the sport’s long history and earliest iteration, and its 19th century “modern” reinvention.
  • This 1885 handbook covers all aspects of the game. It includes tips about suitable menswear (pages 15-18) and clothing advertisements (pages 66-73). Women’s needs are largely ignored, other than the good advice that “No lady can play tennis comfortably while wearing a corset”.
  • Newspapers of the time are a great source of guidance for what the 19th century woman should wear on court:
    • This piece from 1900 is all about Parisian tennis fashions. It includes details on the best colors for tennis outfits, as well as advice on footwear and trimmings.
    • An article from 1908 includes a great deal of guidance on women’s tennis clothing and accessories, and stresses the importance of hats and veils to keep “tennis complexions…flawless”.
  • Free to Use and Reuse: Tennis is one of the many sets of free to use images available on the Library’s website.
Four women on a tennis court, 1922.
Four women on a tennis court, May 1922.
From the National Photo Company Collection, Prints and Photographs.

Perhaps, like me, you’re looking forward to the upcoming U.S. Open Grand Slam in New York (August 28 – September 10).  Tennis’s current young superstars like Carlos Alcaraz, Coco Gauff and Francis Tiafoe will no doubt be featured in PPOC one day. As I watch their amazing athleticism, I’ll also be imagining how Mary Browne, Florence Sutton, Bill Tilden and other champions of yesteryear might have viewed today’s liberated and practical tennis clothing.

See here for information about the image at the top of the post.

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