At 145 years old, Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, and with its return this week comes a dress code best left in the 19th Century. “Competitors must be dressed in suitable tennis attire that is almost entirely white,” the rules dictate. For female athletes and those that have periods, the dress code has raised questions of inclusivity and attitudes towards women in sport. Originally, white was chosen to reduce the appearance of sweat, which was seen as unseemly and improper, particularly on women. So it’s no surprise that as conversations about periods have opened up – from period poverty to menstrual leave – female athletes and those that menstruate are challenging Wimbledon to update the rulebook.
In an interview with The Telegraph, sports broadcaster Catherine Whitaker told Fiona Thomas that she thinks it’s time for the rules to change, sparking a country-wide conversation. “If [Wimbledon] had a clothing policy that affected men in the way that it does women, I don’t think that particular tradition would last,” she says. “I cannot imagine going into the biggest day of my life, with my period, and being forced to wear white.”
In a country where generations of women have been conditioned to believe that periods are shameful and should be treated privately, the responsibility should not land on female athletes to challenge this problematic perception. Professional tennis players such as Rennae Stubbs, who has played at Wimbledon three times in her career, and Russian-French player Tatiana Golovin agreed that it’s a very real source of anxiety, shame and distress for players, which has the power to affect their performance.
“I think it might have been the one time that I actually left the court at Wimbledon, when I did have my period,” Stubbs told The Telegraph. “The match went three sets and I had to go off and change.” Golovin adds that wearing darker shorts – as she was scolded for doing in 2007 – is more comfortable. “It’s very tricky to wear white because you have the photographers, you have pictures everywhere, you’re sliding on the court, you’re falling, you’re playing, your skirt’s flying up,” she says. The thought of a leak is mortifying enough for most women, such is the stigma around menstrual blood, but for those in the public eye, with an audience watching your every move, the pressure is unimaginable.
For decades, womenswear on (and off) the court has been carefully policed. After Alize Cornet’s red briefs became visible during a match in 2013, rules were tightened the following year to ‘crack down’ on the so-called scandalous attire. In 2017, Venus Williams was made to change her underwear mid way through a game because her pink bra-straps were visible. In a post-match conference, she responded to questions about it with the withering disinterest it deserved: “I don’t want to talk about undergarments. It’s kind of awkward for me. I’ll leave that to you. You can talk about it with your friends. I’m going to pass.”
It’s no coincidence that society’s simultaneous, paradoxical objectification of and discomfort with the female body is reflected in its squeamish response to athletes’ underwear in particular, but Wimbledon’s dress code simply ignores the biological, physical and emotional impact a period can have on a person, and calls to change it reflect the success of campaigns that aim to destigmatise periods.