There’s nothing disrespectful about Serena Williams’ catsuit

Serena Williams’ catsuit prompted the French Open to change its dress code.
Serena Williams’ catsuit prompted the French Open to change its dress code.
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
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When Serena Williams went to the French Open this spring for the first time since giving birth, she showed up in style. The record-breaking tennis star faced off against the Czech Republic’s Kristyna Pliskova while wearing a sleek black catsuit designed by Nike.

Williams explained that the catsuit made her feel “like a warrior princess kind of queen from Wakanda,” citing the fictional African country featured in Marvel’s Black Panther. It also served an important medical purpose. The compression garment helped guard against blood clots, a health issue that previously put Williams in a life-threatening condition.

But it seems the catsuit won’t be making an appearance at the next French Open. France Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli told Tennis Magazine that the tournament is instating a dress code, specifically calling out Williams’ memorable outfit. “It will no longer be accepted,” Giudicelli said. “One must respect the game and the place.” He further noted, “I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far.”

Critics have been quick to note that Giudicelli’s comments about Williams’ catsuit fall into a larger pattern under which Williams’ body, clothing, and comportment have been subject to greater scrutiny and criticism than her white professional peers’. “This one seems particularly egregious given the health risks at stake,” writes Elle’s Megan Friedman. Feminist author Mona Eltahawy called the catsuit ban an example of “misogynoir,” or prejudice against black women.

Meanwhile, another Twitter user dug up a photo that proves there’s precedent for Williams’ catsuit—an image of the white, blonde American tennis player Anne White wearing a skintight white catsuit during the Ladies Singles Match against Pam Shriver in 1985.

White’s catsuit was controversial at the time; Wimbledon referee Alan Mills asked White to wear something different the next day. White was annoyed, but obeyed, telling the Washington Post, “I don’t want people spilling their strawberries and cream because of me.” More than 30 years later, it seems decidedly odd that tennis officials are still so easily shocked. Moreover, the modern-day reaction to Williams’ catsuit seems baffling in light of the fact that many white tennis players wear revealing outfits without prompting any rule changes or condescending comments about “respect.” (Consider Anna Kournikova’s 2002 Wimbledon ensemble.)

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, argued that the targeting of Williams is yet another example of a racist culture that seeks out opportunities to police black women’s appearance. “Arbitrary dress code policies have been disproportionately used to target Black women in schools, at work and now on the tennis court,” she wrote on Twitter.

Indeed, just this week, a viral video showed a Louisiana girl being sent home from school in tears because her braided hair extensions were in violation of the school’s “natural hair” policy. But dress codes that specifically focus on, or come about in response to, black women and girls are not about propriety. They’re about white officials’ ongoing discomfort with black people who use fashion as a form of self-expression.