Conservative to cool: How tennis style found its form

Story highlights

  • Tennis began as a lawn sport for aristocracy
  • Just like the game itself, outfits have radically evolved over time
  • We chart this history via some of its most stylish milestones and icons

This photo essay is part of a series of features, set against the backdrop of the 2016 French Open, celebrating French style today. See more here.

(CNN)Having begun as a game for the aristocracy in the late 19th century, tennis is arguably one of the most stylish sports.

And just like the game itself, outfits worn on the court have radically evolved over time. The all-white uniform, still favored in the sport, was an early invention adopted as a way to hide sweat.
    But "tennis whites" -- consisting of long-sleeved white button-up shirts (worn with the sleeves rolled up), flannel trousers, and ties -- were difficult to play in.

    1920s - 1970s

    For women especially, the "roaring twenties" brought freedom to tennis fashion, with cocktail-inspired outfits, sporty visors and sleeveless tops. Suzanne Lenglen was one of the most controversial stars of the day, sipping brandy between changeovers and wearing headwraps.
    French tennis player René Lacoste wore the first tennis shirt at the 1926 U.S. Open championship. He later started the company La Chemise Lacoste in 1933 with André Gillier, the owner and president of the largest French knitwear manufacturing firm at the time. He was nicknamed "the Crocodile" for his tenacity on court, resulting in the famous logo.
    In the 1930s and '40s, women were finally allowed to wear shorts, allowing for better mobility. As with many sports, wider fashion trends have always influenced tennis style. Silhouettes were demure in the 1950s, mini skirts came to play in the 1960s and tighter tailored cuts, accessorized by long hair (both men and women), were adopted in the 1970s.

    1980s to present day

    The ball changed color in 1972 (from white to yellow) so that it showed up more clearly on the television, and the outfits followed suit in the 1980s. The introduction of lightweight materials such as nylon and spandex meant sportswear advanced both on and off the court.
    Andre Agassi sporting denim shorts on the court in 1989.
    But despite tennis' stylish origins, many have fallen short in the style stakes over the years. Looking back on the mullets, denim shorts and all in one nylon body suits of the '80s and '90s, one can't help but cringe.
    With stars like Anna Kornikova, Maria Sharapova and Andy Roddick, the noughties brought a new level of media attention to the sport, with many tennis stars enjoying endorsement, sponsorship deals and modeling gigs. Kournikova even starred in a music video, while Sharapova has continued to be a regular fixture on the front row of many fashion shows.
    But it is Venus and Serena Williams who have arguably had the most impact on tennis style in recent years. Known for their striking outfits, often designed by themselves, they have even managed to sneak some color into Wimbledon -- a tournament that still adopts a very strict dress code.
    Today the "athleisure" trend has had a huge impact on the fashion industry at large, but tennis is still yet to see big fashion brands design specifically for the courts. Stella McCartney is a key exception, with her regular collections for Adidas worn by Caroline Wozniacki.