By Anne White
Anne White knows what it’s like to have a man tell a woman what she can and can’t wear to do her job effectively.
Before I walked out on court for my first-round match at Wimbledon 1985, I’d made sure to do my homework on the tournament’s precise dress code.
The rule stated that all players must be “dressed predominantly in white” and that “any competitor who appears on Court dressed in a manner which is deemed unsuitable by the Committee will be liable to be defaulted.”
Well, what I was wearing was definitely all white, at least, and I sure thought it was suitable.
But still, I was nervous.
My friends and frequent doubles partners Mary Lou Daniels and Robin White had hidden me in the locker-room showers so I could get dressed out of sight of any tournament officials. I had also put on a white tracksuit on top of my outfit.
I walked to the court for our late-evening start time as inconspicuously as possible, but my adrenaline had gone into overdrive—I thought my heart might explode—and not because I was playing against a formidable opponent, the fifth-seeded Pam Shriver, on No. 2 Court, one of Wimbledon’s biggest.
Once the umpire said, “Prepare to play,” I knew I had to take off the tracksuit and accept the consequences for what was underneath: a skintight, one-piece nylon bodysuit.
As I stood on the baseline and got ready to return serve, I saw that the umpire’s face had turned red as a beet. Mary Lou and Robin, meanwhile were courtside, laughing hysterically.
It did not take long for No. 2 Court to fill up with what seemed like every spectator and photographer on the grounds, all with their lenses pointed at me and their motorized shutters humming.
Whatever nerves I had subsided quickly enough: As I settled into the match, I actually started to play exceptionally well, saving two match points to take the second set in a tiebreaker before Alan Mills, Wimbledon’s Referee for the Championships, came onto the court and announced that the match was being suspended due to darkness.
As I was packing my racquet bag, Mills then walked up to me.
“I need to have a word with you,” he said forebodingly. “Let’s walk to the office.”
In that moment I feared I had hit my last ball at Wimbledon.
I never played well at Wimbledon. I should have; my game was perfect for it. But it was so uptight there, and I’m more of a free spirit. I wanted to wake up the establishment a little bit, which was incredibly rigid there back then.
I considered myself a bit of a maverick as a 23-year-old in 1985, but my tennis upbringing had been very traditional. I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, playing at the exclusive Charleston Tennis Club. My parents, who also built me a tennis court at our house, had a classic, preppy aesthetic, with my mom in her Lilly Pulitzer dresses and my dad in his flamboyant Bermuda shorts.
From an early age, I understood the role that fashion and appearance played in tennis, and in the business of the sport. Eileen Ford, of the Ford Modeling Agency, had seen a photograph of me while I was playing the 16-and-unders Easter Bowl, and called my mother to discuss the possibility of me coming to New York City to model. When I met with her son Bill Ford, he suggested I lose 10 pounds, quit tennis, and come to New York to model full-time. I was surprised and honored, but modeling was not something I’d ever envisioned for myself. I had moved to Florida to work on my tennis at the Bollettieri Academy, and all I wanted was for my tennis to get me into a top college. It did: I went to the University of Southern California. After reaching No. 35 in the WTA rankings as an amateur, I turned pro during my sophomore year, signing with IMG.
I was friends with Betsy Nagelsen, the wife of IMG founder Mark McCormack, so I understand the business of the sport well. We were trying to sell and market the tour. In order to be marketable, you had to be willing to be part of the circus, part of the show.
I also had a connection to the business side of the sport through my boyfriend, Ian Hamilton, who was the global head of marketing for Nike Tennis. One of the items of Nike apparel he’d given me was the black-and-orange-paneled tights that Florence Griffith-Joyner had made headlines with a year earlier at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
I loved practicing in the tights. At 5 foot 11, they kept my long legs warmer than anything had before. They were aerodynamic and made me feel faster on court, making me realize just how little attention had been paid in tennis fashion design on improving performance.
One day I joked to Ian, “Can you imagine a white bodysuit at Wimbledon?” We laughed, and I thought that was the end of it, but Ian remained enthusiastic about the concept. What started as a joke quickly became a challenge. He thought it was avant-garde and provocative, just like Nike wanted to be. Nike was the only sports company that was progressive enough to embrace the idea and that could actually manufacture the suit. The only issue, though, was that I was under contract for another apparel company, Pony.
Months later, during the French Open, Ian and I had dinner with Carlo Grippo, a former Italian track star who now ran Nike’s marketing in Italy. Carlo thought it was a fabulous idea and told me he would get it made and sent to my flat in London in time for my first-round match at Wimbledon. Carlo called me “Anna Bianchi,” which became our code name for the bodysuit operation.
I figured there was no way the bodysuit would arrive in time for the start of Wimbledon, and in fact it didn’t. But my tough first-round match against Pam Shriver, initially scheduled for Monday, was delayed by three full days due to persistent rain.
The package from Carlo arrived Thursday morning, just as the rain had stopped. Betsy Van’t Hof, one of my Delta Gamma sorority sisters at USC who was staying with me at the flat in London, sewed a Pony patch and two other sponsor patches, Weight Watchers and Sunbeam, onto the logo-less Nike-made garment. She also helped me accessorize, adding the white leg-warmers that screamed ’80s.
When I tried on the bodysuit, I realized it was so sheer that I couldn’t possibly wear it in public. But, luckily, Carlo had sent two bodysuits, one with long sleeves and one with short sleeves. The solution would be to wear both, which I did.
I was eager to see if I could pull this off. I truly believed that a player should be allowed to wear clothing that increased their performance, with both fashion and function, even if that remained a radical concept for 1985.
As we walked back to the office after my match had been postponed due to darkness, Championships Referee Alan Mills told me that the Tennis Committee at the All-England Club did not find my “catsuit” to be “suitable tennis attire,” as described in its rules. He then stopped, looked at me sternly, and said: “We are asking you not to wear it again.” He told me the match would be resumed the next day at 11 a.m., at which time I was to wear traditional tennis attire.
I pleaded my case, telling him about fashion and function. I joked that I didn’t want anyone to spill their strawberries and cream. He listened intently, and then asked me if I understood the conditions for resuming the match. Not wanting to be banned from the premises, I told him I got it loud and clear.
Each morning it was my job to go out and get the papers for the group of players I was staying with at the flat in London. Back then I’d buy the Daily Mail and the other smutty papers, and then the London Times, maybe four or five papers in all.
The morning after I’d worn the bodysuit was when it hit me: I had known there were a lot of photographers at the court, but holy smokes, I was on the cover of every newspaper! That’s when I first thought that maybe this went a little too far.
My traditionalist parents, who hadn’t traveled to Wimbledon that year, were also shocked I had done something like that. They thought it was outrageous.
At least Ted Tinling, the legendary tennis fashion designer, gave me and the bodysuit a ringing endorsement: “It’s totally logical. She has got a lovely shape. What she’s wearing is the shape of things to come.”
Pony, as it turned out, loved the publicity for their brand from an outfit they’d had no hand in making.
I retook the court later that day at Wimbledon in a normal tennis shirt and skirt, as I had been told to do. I lost the third set 6–3 to Shriver. My bare legs were chilly in the cold.
I never wore a bodysuit in a match again; at most stops on the tour, like the hot and humid US Open, it just wouldn’t have been practical.
But despite never putting it on again, the bodysuit still followed me wherever I went. It was my moment of infamy and my calling card. I got a lot of attention for being Anne White, Who Wore That Bodysuit. It didn’t feel right. I had been a pretty successful junior and collegiate player, and if I was going to be getting attention I wanted it to be for being known as a solid player.
Instead of being a distraction, the bodysuit turned into a sort of motivation, a blessing in disguise. All it takes is for someone to say I can’t do something; then I’ll figure out how to prove I can do it. Focused on my tennis more than ever before, I made my mark. Two years later, I finally won my first tournament in singles—that was my big thing. I got to No. 19 in the world in singles and No. 9 in doubles. I had certain weaknesses in my game and I got about as good as I was going to get, but it was wanting to shed the bodysuit for good that drove me to be more successful than I ever was before.
Bodysuits have hardly become a tennis fashion trend, but there are signs that I was onto something: Lululemon, for starters, has turned formfitting leggings into a billion-dollar business. Athleisure—clothing that is fashionable, functional, and comfortable—has become all the rage: I, too, live in leggings constantly to keep my long legs warm.
Most women’s tennis attire still looks as it always has, with dresses and skirts predominating, but bodysuits started getting talked about in tennis once again when they were resurrected by none other than Serena Williams, first in the early part of her career with Puma at the 2002 US Open, and then again by Nike at the 2018 French Open, which was her first Grand Slam event back from maternity leave.
Months after her French Open return, Serena’s outfit drew the ire of French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, who said that such an outfit would not be accepted again because “one must respect the game and the place.”
I’m no Serena, but like her I know what it’s like to have a man tell you what you can and can’t wear to work when you do your job. And I know that if Maria Sharapova had been the one who had worn that outfit, it would have been a totally different conversation.
Later that year, the WTA changed its rules to make it explicitly clear that bodysuits or leggings without a skirt on top were just fine. In some ways it’s crazy that it took until 2018 for tennis to catch up to something as uncontroversial as leggings, but tennis has always been very traditional, uptight, and late to the party in terms of loosening up the rules on fashion—and the rules on everything else, really.
That’s also the excitement and allure of Serena: She’s really pushed the boundaries and sped things along. Even apart from the catsuits, those tutus she wore at the 2018 US Open were really something else.
Especially at the US Open, when those night matches happen—fashion like that makes it even more exciting. It’s like Broadway! Ultimately, it’s good for the game, though I have to say I was surprised by the radical one-legged bodysuit Serena wore on court in Melbourne this year; I loved the homage to Flo-Jo, but I would think that would just be uncomfortable.
Serena’s taken to wearing bodysuits off court as well now, including being photographed for a recent Stuart Weitzman campaign alongside her daughter, Olympia, who was wearing a matching black bodysuit.
I’ve done a lot of other things in my life. I’m the tennis director at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, and I produced the 2017 Showtime documentary Love Means Zero on my old coach Nick Bollettieri. But the bodysuit remains the thing I’m apparently most known for. And that’s great and fine—it doesn’t bother me. Hopefully I paved the way for more women to make a bold choice in their lives, and do something they believe in. I was definitely a little braver then than I am now.
If you’re wondering: Yes, I still have the bodysuit all these years later; it’s stored away safely at my parents’ house. Supposedly Wimbledon wants it for their museum, but they’ve never asked me directly. They rightly recognize it as a piece of history, which I appreciate. But as I see it, they weren’t so welcoming to me and my outfit then, and now they want it all the sudden? No, I don’t think so. It’s going to stay with me.
Anne White is a former professional tennis player and is currently the director of tennis at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club.