The U.S. Open is in full swing, and we all know what that means: great tennis, lavish sponsor hospitality tents and the annual player fashion show. More than any other women's sporting event, the Open brings a genuine sense of anticipation about the outfits the players will strut out in, creating interest well beyond the usual sports commentary. It seems as if the fashionistas, not to mention the rest of us, never lack for something to talk about.
What's the hot color going to be this time? Would Venus bring back the lattice dress? Could Serena ever top the catsuit? (What was she thinking there, by the way?) Is anyone planning to reprise the Lady Gaga look Bethanie Mattek-Sands rolled out at Wimbledon? Just how expensive are those diamond earrings, necklaces and watches all the players seem to wear? A few days ago, I was reminded that the fashion chatter doesn't end on the court when I saw a three-page New York Post spread about Maria Sharapova's designer preferences (in case you were wondering, she wore Alexander McQueen to the ESPYs).
In a fashion-obsessed world, the interest in the clothing worn by high-profile women isn't surprising. Think about all the copy ink, magazine covers, Internet pages and mind space that have been devoted to Kate Middleton's fashion choices (she brought 40 outfits on her trip to the U.S. and Canada this summer!), the designers Hollywood starlets wear on the red carpet, Michelle Obama's high/low pairings, Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and what those boundary-pushing women in music will dream up next (did anyone catch Katy Perry's hat at the VMA's last weekend?). When women are famous, or trying to become famous, we notice what they wear and, for better or worse, our judgments follow.
Somewhere along the way, the interest in fashion spilled over to women's tennis, to the point the two are now inexorably intertwined. But what makes this so remarkable is that although fashion has become part of the women's tennis story, it hasn't taken anything away from the core storylines -- that is, the performances of the players and the fierceness of the competition. It's the best of both worlds: fashion has given tennis fans something else to watch for and talk about, but in the end, the important thing is who wins, not who winds up in Vogue.
Because I've worked in basketball for so many years, I've often thought about the differences between individual and team sports when it comes to fashion, and wondered whether fashion is a factor in shaping a sport's image in the minds of fans. Unlike sports such as tennis and figure skating, in which individual expression through one's attire is encouraged, the fashion creed in team sports is all about conformity. I guess that's the whole point of being on a team: It's all for one and one for all, so when it comes to outfitting, every team member is expected to look and dress alike.
The fashion rules in women's team sports stem mainly from functionality, player preferences and, to a lesser degree, style. Functionality means the uniforms players wear have to be comfortable and allow them the freedom of movement they need to perform. In most team sports, this translates into shorts and a jersey. In ice hockey, it also means the players are padded and covered from head to toe so they can minimize the chances of injury. Functionality also means uniforms have to be the same color for everyone on the team, so referees don't get confused when making calls in the heat of competition.
Player preferences come into play with fit. It never ceases to amaze me how the baggy look synonymous with men's basketball has now carried over to the women's game, because I don't think it's very flattering. But it has happened largely because women's players have embraced the look as their own and prefer it to tighter-fitting styles. In fact, it's common to see players who normally wear a size 4 or 6 voluntarily select size 10 or 12 when it comes to choosing their shorts size. If you go to any girls' basketball camp these days, chances are good you'll see even young players sporting the same style, proving it's now an accepted part of the female hoops fashion culture.
When it comes to uniform design, women's team sports also have to contend with the "bridesmaid" syndrome, which involves finding a style that will look relatively flattering on women of many shapes and sizes. In basketball, that means coming up with a look that will work for a 5-foot-6 point guard, a 6-4 power forward and everything in between. Australia has experimented with unitards, and Belarus unveiled dresses at the last women's basketball world championship, but neither look has caught on in any meaningful way with other players or with fans.
Because of these factors, the cutting-edge fashion style and pizzazz routinely seen in women's tennis winds up diminished or even missing in women's team sports. So is that a good thing or a bad thing? Some say fashion shouldn't matter in women's sports and the focus is really supposed to be on the competition, anyway. Others argue that fashion is an important ingredient in the selling of women's sports because appearance does matter and because of the natural interest many women and some men have in clothes, whenever and wherever worn.
And what about beach volleyball, in which women's players sport butt-bearing, two-piece bathing suits? Functionality, or a ratings ploy? Whether to show more skin in women's sports brings up another issue entirely.
Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle: functionality comes first, style adds a lot and "who's got game'' trumps best-dressed no matter which way you cut it. Still, if someone could bring a Lady Gaga look to women's basketball in a way in which the players could still make their jump shots, I'd definitely want to check it out.