In Praise of Wimbledon’s (and Others’) Dress Codes

Written for Acculturated

June 29th, 2016

A larger portion of my closet than I care to admit is taken up by shirts, shoes, and hats emblazoned with Roger Federer’s “RF” logo. Over the years, I’ve put together quite the collection, and naturally, I do have some favorites, namely Federer’s 2014 Wimbledon shirt and his 2012 Wimbledon shoes.

They are my favorite for two very connected reasons. (1) They’re designed for Wimbledon (my favorite tournament) and (2) they are simply elegant.

Of course, Federer’s outfits are almost always elegant, but his Wimbledon outfits are sublime, due in large part to Wimbledon’s strict dress code. The code requires all white clothing with at most a one-centimeter trim of color. It has been in place since Wimbledon first started, all the way back in 1877. Wimbledon’s unchanging approach to tennis, from its clothing policy to its use of a grass surface for play, says something about our natural inclination to respect the ways of ordering society we inherit from our ancestors. What’s surprising is that in an anything-goes culture like ours, it still survives.

Wimbledon is the only major tournament still played on grass, tennis’ original surface. But there are also quirkier traditions the tournament maintains, such as servingstrawberries and cream and taking the middle Sunday off. But the dress code—and players complaining about the dress code—is perhaps Wimbledon’s most longstanding tradition.

This year the dress code made news when several female players at Wimbledon refused to wear the Nike-designed tennis dress created for the tournament. Not only was the dress too short, but its trapeze style meant the fabric interfered with the players’ movements; a few players compared its appearance to a nightgown.

In past years, players have complained about the strictness of the “all white” requirement; even Roger Federer told Tennis World last year, “I find it extreme as to what extent it has got to all white.” Internationally ranked tennis players evidently don’t like being told what to wear, and complain that the dress code is oppressive and limits their ability to express themselves.

To those players I say this: poppycock. The dress code is part of what makes Wimbledon special. The fact that the players have to go out of their way to ensure their outfits fit Wimbledon’s criteria is central to the overarching ethos of the tournament. It adds to the general ambiance of Wimbledon, which remains the only tennis tournament the British royal family regularly attends.

Wimbledon isn’t the only place dressing up gets a bad rap. More and more people are adopting the Silicon Valley mantra of choosing comfort over style. J.P. Morgan is one major workplace that recently did away with its suit-and-tie dress code. However, the fact remains that wearing something that differs from your typical casual attire lends a sense of importance to an occasion. It’s why we dress up for weddings and prom and why we (should) dress to impress at work and church. It inspires something within us that, quite literally, alters our behavior. When you dress your best you feel more confident, serious, and professional. Not only that, but it makes relaxing after work all the better. As you shed your work clothes you shed the stresses that accompanied your day. How can you loosen your tie after a long day if you’re not wearing one?

Dressing to fit the occasion is just one of many traditions that’s slowly and quietly being done away with in the name of “ease.” It’s easier not to learn table manners. It’s easier to wear sweatpants everywhere. And ease equals comfort equals happiness (albeit a lazy and frankly boring form of it).

In Whit Stillman’s film masterpiece Metropolitan, the character Nick Smith makes the argument for tradition. Talking about detachable collars Nick says, “It’s a small thing, but symbolically important. Our parents’ generation was never interested in keeping up standards. They wanted to be ‘happy,’ but of course the last way to be ‘happy’ is to make it your objective in life.”

Years ago, tennis great Andre Agassi just wanted to be “happy,” and summed up this general attitude in his criticism of Wimbledon’s dress code. After a first-round loss early in his career, Agassi gave up on Wimbledon and completely skipped the tournament for many years. Agassi complained that “Wimbledon officials appear to take a haughty, high-handed pleasure in telling players what to do and what not to do” before echoing the invariably childish and narcissistic sentiments of people befuddled by tradition: “Why must I wear white? I don’t want to wear white.”

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton reminds us that tradition, far from being a stuffy attempt by elders to control younger generations, is in fact “the democracy of the dead.” Contra Agassi and others who think personal happiness and comfort is more important, tradition “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around”—or in this case, those who merely happen to be playing tennis in 2016.