This garment resides in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). Donated by Althea Gibson herself in 1988, one can imagine the painstaking care she took to preserve the white cotton blouse and linen skirt for almost thirty years after the historic match. The description at NMAH tells nothing of who made the skirt and blouse; the museum surely would have noted if Gibson had been dressed by Ted Tinling, an English designer best known for dressing the top female players from the 1950s-1970s, particularly at Wimbledon. Though the designer of Gibson’s tennis whites may remain unknown, the hands that stitched them together were but one of the dozens of unseen African American hands who uplifted Gibson on her journey from Harlem’s Cosmopolitan tennis club to international fame. Gibson’s tall, lithe brown body in tennis whites, arm lifted to serve the ball across the courts of Forest Hills, NY and Wimbledon, is best remembered for her legendary firsts. The regulating bodies of tennis quite literally hoped to regulate the bodies of those who played professional tennis on the elite courts on both sides of the Atlantic through the color line of race and fashion. Gibson’s preservation of her attire reveals the importance of dress in the struggle against discrimination.


Appropriation and Influence

Cover of the Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin, 1894

The Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin

The Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin, the official organ of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, also emphasized the standardization of tennis etiquette and fashion, by declaring “the plainer and neater a tennis costume is, the more sensible and suitable for the game.” These sartorial requirements were heavily coded against people of color and the working classes who were not only less likely to have access to leisure time or tennis courts, but were predominantly employed in job sectors where keeping clothes white was impossible.

Image: Cover of the Official Lawn Tennis Rules, 1894. Link.

Photograph of a young Althea Gibson on the tennis court

Youth and Training

The race of those who played on the elite professional tennis circuits, with careers built on the private courts of America’s country clubs, remained as stubbornly white as their tennis clothes. Gibson, born in Harlem to South Carolina sharecroppers, was stubbornly Black — and female, and six feet tall by her preteen years. She moved quickly from regional to national tennis prominence, and was mentored by two physicians and a socialite who were prominent in the Black tennis circuit.

Image of a young Althea Gibson. Link.

Photograph of Althea Gibson playing Tennis

Designer Unknown

The seamstress of Gibson’s tennis whites are unknown, but it provides a glimpse of her path to championships that relied upon the support and institutions created by and for African Americans in the mid twentieth century.

Image: Althea Tibson. inher iconic and influencial Tennis Whites. Link.

Photograph of Venus Williams on the tennis court, wearing a modern iteration of the Tennis Whites

Venus Williams in Tina Turner inspired tennis whites, Wimbledon, 2010

Venus Williams, having graduated with a degree in fashion design from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, designed her tennis attire in the 2010 tennis season. Her label, EleVen, provides fashion-forward tennis designs that challenge assumptions about the proper attire on—and off—the tennis courts. This outfit paid homage to a Black female icon and continues the legacy of Black women being creative with the rules intended to exclude them.

Image: Venus williams at 2010 Wimbledon. Link.

Photograph from the SS2015 collection by Alexander Wang, a tennis whites-inspired dress.

Alexander Wang, S/S 2015

Wang’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection was heavily influenced by his love for sneakers. The overtly sportswear pieces that models wore down the runway combined this love with structured and architectural pieces inspired by tennis attire, among other athletic sports.

Image: Alexander Wang SS2015 Collection. Link.

Photograph of the Nike Premier Slam Tennis Dress, white and clearly inspired by Althea Gibson

Nike Premier Slam Tennis dress, 2016

Dubbed the “baby doll” dress in the media, this was Nike’s attempt to be fashion-forward and spark conversation about style on the courts. The dress strained the relationship between its star spokeswomen and the Wimbledon officials, and ultimately, female tennis players were unhappy with the dress because of its skimpiness and impracticality.

Image: Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon. Link.


Atkinson, Juliette. “Tennis Costume for Ladies.” In Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin, Vol 4, No. 1, edited by William Dana Ocutt, 1-2. Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, University Press, 1897.

Gibson, Althea and E Fitzgerald (ed.). I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958.

Schoenfeld, Bruce. The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton: How Two Outsiders—One Black, the Other Jewish—Forged a Friendship and Made Sports History. New York: Harper, 2005.

Stanmyre, Jackie F. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe: Breaking Down Tennis’s Color Barrier. Cavendish Square Publishing, LLC, 2016.