Ask Catherine Whitaker if Wimbledon’s strict all-white dress code has survived its time and the tennis announcer doesn’t hesitate in her answer. “I’d like to see it change,” she says. “If they had a clothing policy that would affect men as much as women do, I don’t think that particular tradition would last. I can’t imagine going into the biggest day of my life, having my period, and being forced to wear white.”
Whitaker’s views stem from a discussion that unexpectedly gripped women’s tennis last month when Qinwen Zheng opened up about how menstrual cramps affected her in her defeat to Iga Swiatek at the French Open. “I live in fear of having my period for a week when I’m presenting on TV,” Whitaker tweeted. “And that doesn’t include strenuous physical activity, supervision of my toilet breaks, or the obligation to wear white.”
The message sent social media into overdrive. Monica Puig, the gold medalist of the 2016 Rio Olympics, recalled the “mental stress” of having to wear white at Wimbledon and “praying not to get my period during those two weeks”.
Wimbledon prides itself on its all-white dress code – conceived in the 1800s to minimize sweat stains on colored clothing – which sets it apart from the other Grand Slams. “Tennis whites are boring unless it’s Wimbledon, where it’s classy,” Serena Williams once said, a line immortalized on the wall of the Wimbledon Museum.
The championships have often drawn attention for their dress codes: Andre Agassi boycotted them from 1988 to 1990 for preferring flashier clothes, while Roger Federer was busted in 2013 for wearing orange-soled shoes. Martina Navratilova claimed officials had “gone too far” when she was told her blue-striped skirt was breaking the rules. But so far, no female player has publicly questioned the usefulness of whites around menstruation.
“We’ve all talked about it in the locker room,” said former Australian player Rennae Stubbs, two-time All England Club doubles champion in 2001 and 2004. “At Wimbledon you know very well that you have to make sure everything is ‘good’ to go” when you walk around the court – make sure you have a tampon. Many women have pads on top of that, or make sure you have an oversized tampon before you hit the court. I think maybe it’s the The only time I left the court at Wimbledon was when I had my period, the match was three sets and I had to go and change.”
That view is shared by Tatiana Golovin, the former Russian-born French player and winner of the mixed-double French Open. “For an athlete, it’s very difficult to wear white because you have the photographers, you have shots everywhere, you slide across the field, you fall, you play, your skirt flies up,” she says. “I’ve always thought it’s better to wear something darker, just to feel more comfortable.”
But when Golovin appeared at the 2007 championships in red shorts it sparked a flood of headlines† “Cheeky Golovin refuses to drop her red knickers,” read one. “Golovin gets her red knickers in a twist,” said another. Always after that, organizers clung to colored underwear.
Golovin claims the reason for wearing the shorts wasn’t because she was worried about her period — she just forgot to take them off after her warm-up. Still, she has mixed feelings about the fact that as a player she has to wear white. “It’s something you always think about when you’re a woman who has to go to Wimbledon,” said Golovin, 34, who still keeps her beloved red shorts in the attic of her Paris home. “I feel like nobody really said anything, because maybe accidents never happened. Women have always been more or less involved. I think they [organisers] would obviously take this very seriously if it were a problem and people complained.”
As the tradition of wearing white at Wimbledon continues, organizers have stepped up their efforts to promote the health of female athletes: from providing sanitary products in women’s locker rooms to a dedicated medical team, supporting players during their periods is at an all-time high.
“We want to make sure we prioritize women’s health and provide players with everything they need,” said an All England Club representative.
‘Nobody wants to see the all-white rule change’
It’s the kind of help Stubbs craved. She vividly recalls the day she withdrew an hour from a doubles match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics at age 25 because her period pains were so unbearable. “I lay on the floor and threw up,” she recalls. “It felt like I was hit by a train. I didn’t really know the extent of the pain that was about to come over me.”
Her symptoms were so debilitating that Stubbs ended up taking the Pill for nearly a decade to improve her periods. Her experience has shaped her view of the perception of menstruation in tennis. “Nobody wants to see the all-white rule change at Wimbledon,” she says. “That’s what makes Wimbledon so special and it’s something other players enjoy. What needs to be discussed more is the understanding that every month there are players who are really in a lot of pain and have to go out on the pitch and still give 100 percent.”
Whitaker shares the sentiment, but goes to great lengths to point out an unintended consequence of the strict all-white code that could force players to manipulate the timing of their monthly bleed. “I’m excited to live in a world where the pill is available, but I wouldn’t want anyone to feel pressured to take an extremely strong medication with side effects simply because of a clothing policy that puts women at a disadvantage,” he says. they. “I can’t believe there aren’t more people in the press” [conferences] and say, ‘Well, try playing a tennis match in white with your period! It’s mind-blowing.”