Serena Williams made a fashion statement at last year’s French Open, wearing an all-black Nike catsuit paired with sparkly tennis shoes. This year, the French Tennis Federation has announced they will be changing the dress-code, with president Bernard Giudicelli specifically calling out Williams’s one-piece catsuit, saying, “One must respect the game and the place." Wait, what?
Williams told reporters at a conference in May that the catsuit gave her the confidence of a superhero, saying, "I feel like a warrior in it, a warrior princess...from Wakanda, maybe."
Other than channelling the epic women of Wakanda, the catsuit served an important medical function. Williams suffered life-threatening blood clots after giving birth to baby Alexis. Nearly dying didn’t keep Williams from dominating on the court, but it did encourage her to take more precautions to protect her health. That includes changing her athletic wear. Williams told reporters in May, "I've been wearing pants, in general, a lot when I play so I can keep the blood circulation going."
Williams’s catsuit covered her entire body in black material, so why would the French Tennis Federation consider it an inappropriate alternative to more traditional tennis skirts that show a lot more skin? And why should they police what female athletes wear? Giudicelli simply said, “I believe we have sometimes gone too far” when it comes to tennis fashion.
In a press conference at the U.S. Open, Williams addressed the controversy, telling reporters that she had spoken to Giudicelli and that the two are friendly. She stressed that everything was okay on her end, though she didn't know exactly what he said. And then, with the grace and dry humour for which she is so beloved, Williams said, "I've since found other methods [for encouraging blood circulation], and when it comes to fashion you don't want to be a repeat offender. It will be awhile before this has to come up again."
As a black woman in a very white sport, Williams is constantly body-shamed because her body doesn’t look like her white competitors’. Society especially sexualises black women’s bodies, which is a problem for athletes like Williams who are trying to use those bodies to, you know, compete. Fashion is also obnoxiously white, so clothing made to dress Black bodies, like Williams’s Wakanda-inspired suit faces additional obstacles.
Oh my god, just let the woman play! Williams has topped Forbes’s list of most marketable female athletes (that’s across all sports). She’s dominated tournaments all over the world, achieving a jaw-dropping list of titles. Catsuit, birthday suit, her cool Meghan Markle inspired hoodie — whatever she wants to wear, it’s not really anyone else’s business. Just focus on her game. She’ll bring it.
This story was originally published on August 25, 2018, additional reporting was added.