Monitoring Fashion in Women’s Sport: Tyranny or an Attempt to Legislate Credibility?


Maggie Vessey and her dramatic outfit, described by Runner’s World as “a bright Navajo-inspired print with long sleeves on top, and a skimpy, strappy bottom. And she sported Chanel earrings.”

When I think of fashion and sport the first two athletes who come to mind are the Williams sisters. These professional tennis players have pushed the limits of on court fashion far, far beyond the traditional, bland, conservative tennis skirt and t-shirt with white tennis shoes. And they did it while also dominating the sport.

Yesterday I saw this post about women’s fashion in professional sport, focusing on how closely monitored it is in running. The author calls those who police women’s fashion in track sports ‘tyrants.’

The piece features the dramatic outfit of Maggie Vessey, who ran to a silver medal in the 800 metre event at the Prefontaine Classic track meet in Oregon on the weekend. The outfit had long sleeves, a “Navajo-inspired print,” and “skimpy, strappy bottom.”

The article links to this entertaining YouTube video posted by Oiselle that depicts just how difficult it can be to get an aesthetically interesting running singlet to pass muster with USA Track and Field (USATF). By try number 6 the original design is but a distant memory. The attempt to include decorative birds was summarily nixed. Anything visually interesting on the shirt is so subtle as to be almost invisible. The cited reasons for rejecting each iteration of the shirt seem at first to be arbitrary, verging on ridiculous.

But it got me to thinking about why the tough standard. I’ve been thinking a lot about rules lately because Renald and I just bought a condo. We haven’t moved in yet but we went to the first “town hall” meeting of owners last week, and for the first time it occurred to me:  there are rules.  When you own your own house, you get to make your own rules. But when you live in a condo, you have a say, but in the end it’s not entirely up to any one person.

There are rules about what you can store on your balcony (nothing), in your parking spot (nothing but your car), how often you can rent the common lounge (never), how to book the media room (by sign-up sheet, but don’t abuse it), whether you can let people in the front door behind you (no), whether there should be a cap on what percentage of units at any given time may be rented out to non-owner tenants (controversial and undecided). And different people have a different level of interest and investment in different things. I was part of a small and vocal group who cared about secure bicycle storage more than anything else. Not everyone felt similarly passionate about it.

The point is, it’s hard to balance interests in all sorts of things, and it’s difficult to know how permissive to be in areas where people as individuals prefer to enjoy free choice.  The rules about no storage on the balconies or in the parking spots, for example, are meant to keep things from getting out of control. We don’t want the outside of the building or the underground parking to start looking like a junk yard. Uniformity and simplicity have a certain kind of aesthetic appeal.  Much more so than clutter.

This same kind of concern can carry over to sport. Too much fashion might just be a distraction, a clutter of bold colors, loud logos, and outfits designed more to catch people’s attention than perhaps to be functional.

Related to this, the more focus there is on fashion, the less focus there is on the sport itself.  A simple google search about the Williams sisters yields all sorts of articles about their clothing and jewelry — almost as many as you will find about their performance as professional tennis players.  Almost every report about their tennis makes at least a passing reference to their clothes.

Serena Williams in black tennis dress and knee high boots at the US Open in 2004.

Serena Williams in black tennis dress and knee high boots at the US Open in 2004.

They can afford to get away with this because they are excellent players.  But in the long run, it’s not clear that the centre-court-as-runway approach to women’s tennis does the sport a service in the long run.

I’m not saying I’m opposed to sport fashion. Sam has posted about running skirts before (see Running Skirts and Sexism).  There she says:

I worry that they contribute to yet more pressure on women to look good at all times–even while running marathons.  Triathlete  Nicole DeBoom even won an Ironman competition in a skirt. Can’t athletic events and training be times for other values in women’s lives? Can we get a break from caring about our appearance? Please.

She’s also talked about looking cute while working out (see Play Hard, Look Cute). There she says:

So if it’s fun and motivational, great. But if turns into one more place where you feel there’s a bar you need to meet before getting out the door is acceptable, then maybe it’s time to pay attention to athletic values rather than aesthetic ones.

You also have to wonder whether we would have similar conversations about men’s sport. I’m guessing not.  And it’s not just because men “aren’t into that sort of thing.” Rather, I think it’s more that men’s sport doesn’t need anything additional to get attention.

As we’ve blogged about before, women in sport are often sexualized. In fact, Sam’s post “Crotch Shots, Upskirts, Sports Reporting, and the Objectification of Female Athletes’ Bodies,” is one of the most popular posts because of all the people who search for “crotch shots” and “upskirts.”  Sigh.

So back to the tight control over clothing in women’s track and field.  It may be that it’s like a condo association trying to preserve a nice, simple, uniform aesthetic over a cacophony of personal style.  Or it may be that they’re just tyrannically anti-personal expression, trying to take the fun out of everything. Or it may be that they are aware that women’s sport has to try harder than men’s sport for credibility and respect.

And the best kind of respect is a focus on athletic achievement, not looking a certain way.


About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, yoga enthusiast, vegan, knitter, runner.

6 thoughts on “Monitoring Fashion in Women’s Sport: Tyranny or an Attempt to Legislate Credibility?

  1. Caitlin says:

    It’s hard to separate this from all of the other b.s. pulled by USATF with regards to their athletes. They aren’t quite FIFA or the IOC in terms of shittiness, but they are definitely up there. So when I take the context of USATF’s history of treating athletes basically like serfs into consideration when discussing this, I’m more inclined to go with “tyrannical governing body” over “heavy-handed but well-meaning condo association.”

    Also I go back and forth on the question of fashion in sporting apparel. Obviously I don’t think anyone should feel like they have to get all dolled-up just to get their sweaty competitiveness on, but I also think that self-expression is a big part of what it means to be human. (And an argument can be made that consciously rejecting fashion is in itself a form of self-expression.) My personal attitude is not so much to say that people should all dress the same way when competing or engaging in physical activity, but rather to interrogate why it is exactly that we’ve decided certain modes of dress/fashion/style are automatically considered frivolous and less worthy of being taken seriously than others.

  2. I think about this topic quite a bit as it relates to roller derby. As players, we’ve already made the shift from “spectacle” to sport, but is it as fun now that the on-track personas are less abundant and the focus is on super athletes? Is it less unique? We’re a sport that has a lot of costs involved to cover renting venues, practice space, and traveling for away bouts. How do we get the fans interested enough to buy a $15 ticket for the sake of the sport of roller derby rather than because they want to see women in fishnets and stage makeup knocking each other down? We still knock each other down, of course… but leggings and team jersey uniforms are becoming more prevalent than booty shorts.

    • Tracy I says:

      Great questions. Do you perceive these changes as a lamentable loss or as positive? I guess from your comment that you’re torn.

  3. Carly says:

    Reblogged this on This is a bit random, but… and commented:
    An interesting post on fashion and regulation in athletics with a highlight on recent events in track & field. Great, insightful discussion happening in the comments… (Reblogged from Fit Is a Feminist Issue)

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