by David Kobe
Tennis has become an entire vibe for fashion people. You’ve got Racquet magazine for chic culture writing about the game, and tennis has become a dedicated hobby/lifestyle for fashion professionals in the know like Emily O’Berg and the expanded How Long Gone podcast universe. Painter Jonas Woods just exhibited his bold and colorful paintings of tennis courts across the global professional circuit at Gagosian.
These days, it feels like everyone is picking up a racket. I see Andre Agassi’s memoir Open on the subway at least once a week. “It’s actually really good,” those adjacent to writing and publishing will always tell me, apologizing as if they’ve just revealed their love of crappy reality television.
It’s unsurprising that tennis is having a fashion moment. The sport has always had some fashion cache—Arthur Ashe in crisp tennis whites on Wimbledon grass, for example, is an image that echoes throughout history as the coolest anyone has ever looked—but I have a few bones to pick with tennis style at the moment, and some ground rules to lay. Although the white tennis skirt was groundbreaking when Sky Ferreira donned it on stage in 2013, it has become the unofficial uniform of the rising sophomores at NYU who’ve convinced their parents to let them stay in the city over the summer. Customers who line up at KITH have all but ruined the kind of vintage fluorescent gear that Agassi popularized during his playing years. FILA has been beaten to death and must be avoided at all costs; and frankly, modern performance-wear from places like Nike, Adidas, and Wilson lacks the character of the older gear.
I’m not suggesting you return to wooden rackets, but I am suggesting you gather inspiration from the past. Shoppers be wary, though: There is a fine line between being inspired by vintage tennis gear and cosplaying as Richie Tennebaum. The pieces I’ve selected below represent the middle ground of tennis, when there was a hint of upper-class luxury left, just before sportswear was derailed by overly bold and poppy colors—followed, of course, by backlash in the form of our current grey and black athleisure fixation. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend wearing these to your next invitational (they won’t help much with your lateral quickness) but their pure elegance might force a fault in the right situation.
When it comes to modern tennis shorts, the fact of the matter is that they aren’t very short. I often wear Nike running shorts to play, and although five inches is the recommended inseam for peacocking, sometimes I’ll even go three inches shorter than that. This 1970s deadstock pair from Lacoste has a much older silhouette compared to contemporary ones. The shorts are shorter, and the waist actually rises to your natural waist. They are closer to the trunks that Alain Delon wears in La Piscine or tennis shorts your grandpa would wear to the Y than modern tennis shorts, but that is precisely what makes them stand out.
Ellesse is an Umbrian sportswear company that hasn’t really made its way to this side of the pond. Their shorts were staples for ’80s stars such as Guillermo Vilas and Boris Becker. This sturdy pair with a multi-stripe waist will allow you to channel Vilas’ sublime baseline play. Perfect for a tennis session on Shelter Island or a coffee run on the Lower East Side, these shorts harken back to an era of casual sportsmanship, not the depressing era of optimization embodied by Orange Theory and Peloton leaderboards.
The perfect green color on these Le Tigre shorts is rivaled only by the freshly cut grass at the West Side Tennis Club. Le Tigre, founded to rival Lacoste directly, embroiders its products with a ferocious tiger logo that stands in opposition to their competitor’s alligator. The gator looks docile and wimpy next to the deadly jungle cat. Le Tigre was popular in the ’80s and worn by Wilt Chamberlain (cool as hell) and Ronald Reagan (in hell). They went out of production in the ’90s, but there are plenty of these exact shorts on Depop and other used clothing sites.
Tennis skirts, especially white ones with infinite pleats, feel completely overdone. If I see another vintage crew neck/tennis skirt combo I will file a class-action lawsuit against Los Angeles Apparel. I get it, it’s cute, but there must be something more. When Outdoor Voices introduced The Exercise Dress I felt that, despite Ty Haney’s complicated tenure as founder and CEO—employees accused her of being “‘spoiled’ and mercurial”—she was onto something. Yet, like most athleisure pieces, The Exercise Dress lacks any character or identity. Upon further inspection, it becomes clear that it is simply a tennis dress, something that Nike, and countless other brands, have been producing for decades. This deadstock dress from Nike is perfect for running errands, ripping the e-bike over the Manhattan Bridge, or having a showdown returning shots from the vicious ball machine (aka “The Dragon”) that the young Agassi’s psychopath dad built for him.
Okay, I recant! Tennis skirts can be cool and interesting, but only if you explore these vivid, floral colors. Only then can one break away from basicdom and transcend into a blossoming tennis nymph who blesses the stately grass at center court. Prince made tennis skirts like these in the ‘90s, and you can find them in nearly every pastel available on Depop. You can escape the trend with a touch of color.
It’s difficult to even conceive of a time when a sweater might be appropriate to wear, considering the hellish heat plaguing New York and the entire globe. With the pace of climate change quickening, there may only be two or three more good years left of sweater weather, so I suggest indulging yourself. This cable-knit sweater, made by the in-house brand at Wimbledon in the tournament’s traditional royal emerald and purple, is a steal at $40.
Wimbledon is all about tradition: the ball boys and girls imported from local posh secondary schools, the legacy sponsors, and, of course, the strawberries and cream. Who can forget the iconic dessert? In 2017, the tennis viewing public ate approximately 33 tons of strawberries and 2,200 gallons of cream. Like a Brit sunbathing in Spain, that is pretty disgusting. Not the best diet if you want to be in tournament shape, but that’s for the players to worry about, not you. This sweater is sure to be in the tennis bag of anyone in attendance at the Royal Gallery. Just be sure not to get any strawberries and cream on the sleeves.
Around this time last year, I felt like the only images on my feed were photographs of fashion editors in cable knit sweater vests. It was last year’s version of the East Williamsburg photographer/lead guitarist/unemployed liberal arts school graduate fuckboy look. Every time I saw someone in the vest, I thought to myself, “that looks very hot”—in terms of temperature, not looks. It was approximately 129 degrees Fahrenheit every day last summer, and when the subways aren’t flooding from rain, this summer has felt essentially the same. This Prince sweater vest answers the eternal question: “How do I wear a sweater vest and not look like I am drenched from five full sets?” It’s made of lightweight cotton, and the brown outlines alongside the bright yet minimal design on the left side of the chest give it a slight splash of color that elevates it to a subtle statement piece. Perfect for a scorcher, or even a mild day, if we ever have one of those again.
Finally, I leave you with this incredible video of tennis bad boy (absolutely love this sports archetype) Nick Kyrgios slamming jumping forehands. Sometimes you can tell that Kyrgios wishes he was in the NBA instead of playing tennis. For him, tennis fans are too stuffy and the play isn’t creative enough. These kinds of moves are a testament to his punk ethos but also to his pure enthusiasm. We can all learn a thing from Nick Kyrgios.
David Kobe co-edits Laid Off NYC's Politics section and writes our monthly "Depop Happenings" column. Get to know him better: @david_kobe