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Serena Williams’s Catsuit Uniform Ignites Global Conversation

Illustration by Mia Turner

On May 29, 2018, Grand Slam title holder Serena Williams, wore a striking black catsuit to the French Open (also known as the Roland-Garros) tennis tournament. The Black Panther-inspired catsuit covered her entire body and was specifically designed to prevent blood clots that plagued her during childbirth 12 months prior. In late August, Bernard Giudicelli, the president of the French Tennis Federation, announced that the French Open would be changing its dress code, making it more conservative. “I believe we have sometimes gone too far,” he said in an interview with Tennis Magazine. He even went on to single out Williams’s suit. “Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.”

Although Williams did not comment on the new dress code, it sparked a global controversy. Some think that the dress code is acceptable, but others believe Giudicelli is confining Williams. Tennis has been known to be one of the most controlling sports in terms of uniforms; for years women have been forced to wear specific outfits.

When 11-time French Open winner Rafael Nadal was asked about the new dress code, he said, “I really believe when you have a tournament like Wimbledon that does what they want you cannot say to another event that they have to do another thing. Why if Wimbledon [can] have their own rules, why can’t Roland Garros?” He makes a good point. If other tennis tournaments can have their own strict dress codes, why did Roland-Garros get called out for theirs?

Not everyone agrees with Nadal. Billie Jean King, former professional tennis player, responded to the French Open’s new dress code in a very different way. “The policing of women’s bodies must end,” she tweeted. “The ‘respect’ that’s needed is for the exceptional talent Serena Williams brings to the game.” This quote implies that women’s bodies continue to be monitored, just as they were when she was playing tennis. Not only have female athletes’ bodies been watched, but their clothing has also been put under scrutiny for a long time. In an interview with New York Magazine, Billie Jean King shared that when she was playing tennis, women’s wrists and ankles could not be shown. She goes on to say that she never heard anyone telling the men how to dress.

Additionally, companies such as Nike showed their support. Nike recently tweeted a picture of Serena Williams with the caption “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”

However, Serena isn’t the only female tennis player facing adversity. This year’s US Open when french tennis player Alizé Cornet was penalized for taking off her shirt in the middle of sets to adjust it. She turned her back to the cameras and was wearing a sports bra; she got a penalty even though men at the tournament routinely were seen without shirts between points.

By changing the French Open dress code, Giudicelli is ignoring the fact that Serena Williams’s outfit was specifically designed to decrease the likeliness of her getting a blood clot. Serena also said that the catsuit made her feel like a warrior princess, superhero, and queen from Wakanda and that it was a statement to inspire women and children. She said, “All the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce, in the middle of everything. That’s what this represents. You can’t beat a catsuit, right?”

Just three days after Serena Williams’s catsuit was called out, she won a match against a Polish tennis player at the US Open in a fierce black and magenta tutu. The tutu showed the world that one person’s comment cannot take her down. She made it all the way through the tournament to the finals and received second place to Naomi Osaka, a 20 year old from Japan, in two sets.