Headbands to silk skirts: Lenglen's style legacy lives on

 - Danielle Rossingh

Sharapova, Williams and Agassi are modern-day tennis fashion icons thanks to one trailblazing Frenchwoman

Suzanne Lenglen, Roland Garros, fashion, history© A. Traverso/FFT

When Coco Gauff takes to the court, she typically does so wearing a headband and a sleek tennis dress.

The outfits of the 16-year-old American star can be traced back to a legendary Frenchwoman who ruled the game in the early 1920s: Suzanne Lenglen.

Just like Gauff, Lenglen was a teenage phenom who became the world’s first international female sporting superstar thanks to her fashionable style, eccentric character and balletic movement on the court. 

Nicknamed “The Goddess”, Lenglen would often arrive at tournaments in a fur coat. Between sets, she kept herself calm by sipping sugar cubes, soaked in brandy or cognac, thrown to her by her father and coach.

A 'fascinating champion’

“Her arrival on court was a theatrical and provocative production,” reads Lenglen’s biography on the website of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Lenglen “was the first female player to eliminate bulky undergarments, wore her black hair in a short bobbed style, painted her nails and wore bright red lipstick.  

“Her silk tennis dresses were trimmed above her calf – a big taboo for women’s players at the time – and her sleeves were cut short too, displaying bare arms, another no-no on court.

“She was glamorous, dramatic, unpredictable, prone to inexplicable mood swings, and through it all, a rare and fascinating champion.” 

Coco Gauff, Roland Garros 2020©Julien Crosnier

A fierce competitor

Lenglen was also a ferocious competitor, who won the World Hardcourt Championships in Paris when she was just 15. She was so dominant, she only lost once between 1919 and 1926. Ranked world No.1 for six years, Lenglen won the Wimbledon singles and doubles titles five years in a row and six of seven years (1919-1923, 1924).

She was also hugely successful at her home Grand Slam event, winning what was then called the French Championships six times in singles and doubles, and seven times in mixed doubles.

In 1997, Roland-Garros organisers named their second-biggest showcourt after their iconic star, while the women’s winners trophy bears her name.

A headband legacy

Since tennis was invented as a pastime for the aristocracy in the 1870s, there has always been a strong connection between the sport and fashion, especially at Roland-Garros, which is perhaps the most stylish of all four Grand Slam events.

Lenglen made sportswear fashionable on the streets of Paris in the 1920s after she started working with French dressmaker Jean Patou, who designed her pleated white silk skirts that fell just above the knee, sleeveless cardigans and her customary headband, which soon became all the rage.

Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2020, second round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Over the years, Lenglen has inspired many female tennis superstars, including two-time Roland-Garros champion Maria Sharapova, whose navy-style dress at the 2008 championships paid tribute to the French star. 

Lenglen was not the only trendsetter at Roland-Garros in the 1920s: on the men’s side, French star Rene Lacoste, nicknamed “The Crocodile”, made a name for himself when he invented the polo shirt.

Players, including top-ranked Novak Djokovic, still wear his brand with its famous crocodile logo more than 100 years later. And in the 1930s, British tennis player Henry “Bunny” Austin shocked the tennis establishment when he swapped his long, thick cricket flannels for a pair of shorts. The men’s game never looked back.

Andre Agassi, Roland-Garros 1991©Christophe Guibbaud / FFT

An homage to Agassi

This year’s Roland-Garros has seen players including Eugenie Bouchard, Denis Shapovalov and Victoria Azarenka wear clothing, which pays homage to a more contemporary fashion icon: Andre Agassi. The American’s bold outfits, including fluorescent cycling shorts underneath stone-washed denim hot pants, helped turn him into one of the sport’s biggest stars in the 1990s.

Former semi-finalist Kiki Bertens won a tough second round in an orange-toned dress matching the clay and featuring printed bottom pleat panels. Serena Williams competed in a sleek all-black ensemble in her one and only round, while Gauff sported a stylish dark-blue kit.

Rafael Nadal’s baby-blue shorts and shirt, complete with a white jacket and hot pink face mask, headband and wristbands, lit up social media when he played his first match.

No doubt, Lenglen would have approved. 

Genie Bouchard, Roland Garros 2020©Corinne Dubreuil