Anyone for Tennis?

Tennis apron, from 'Madame Schild' Shilling Dress Patterns', Issue 7, 1889 (British Library)

Given the recent triumph by Andy Murray at the Wimbledon championships, tennis may be about to have a resurgence of interest – not before time. Lawn Tennis (so called because it was played outside, unlike ‘real’ or ‘royal’ tennis, played in a specially constructed room) has a long history in Britain, but not for the reasons we might expect. In the 1870s it became popular as an upper-class diversion, played on the lawns of large country houses. It was one of the few sports acceptable for young ladies (other than horse riding, which was much more expensive) and ‘tennis parties’ provided a welcome opportunity for young people to socialise relatively informally. Not surprisingly, ladies’ tennis clothing was chosen for its smartness as much as for its practicality; dress sleeves were so tight that it was impossible to serve underarm, and corsets and hats were de rigueur. One concession to sportswear was the ‘tennis apron’ which protected the front of the dress from grass stains and abrasion, usually made with a large pocket on the front for storing tennis balls. Patterns to make these at home started to appear around 1878.

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