Ask Catherine Whitaker whether Wimbledon’s strict all-white dress code has outlived its time and the tennis broadcaster does not hold back in her response. “I would like to see it change,” she says. “If they had a clothing policy that affected men in the way that it does women, I don’t think that particular tradition would last. I cannot imagine going into the biggest day of my life, with my period, and being forced to wear white.”
Whitaker’s views come off the back of a discussion that unexpectedly gripped women’s tennis last month when Qinwen Zheng opened up about how menstrual cramps affected her in her defeat by Iga Swiatek at the French Open. “I live in fear of getting my period during a week when I’m presenting on TV,” Whitaker punched into Twitter. “And that involves no strenuous physical activity, policing of my toilet breaks, or requirement to wear white.”
The post sent social media into overdrive. Monica Puig, the 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist, recalled the “mental stress” of having to wear white at Wimbledon and “praying not to have your period during those two weeks”.
Wimbledon prides itself on its all-white dress code – conceived in the 1800s to minimise sweat stains on coloured clothing – which sets it apart from the other Grand Slams. “Tennis whites are boring unless it’s Wimbledon, where it’s classy,” Serena Williams famously once said, a line immortalised on the wall at the Wimbledon Museum.
The Championships have often drawn attention for their clothing rules: Andre Agassi boycotted them from 1988 to 1990 because he preferred flashier apparel, while Roger Federer was pulled up for wearing shoes with orange soles in 2013. Martina Navratilova claimed officials had “gone too far” when she was told her blue-striped skirt violated regulations. Yet until now no female player has publicly questioned the practicality of whites around menstruation.
“We’ve all talked about it in the locker room,” says former Australian player Rennae Stubbs, a two-time doubles champion at the All England Club in 2001 and 2004. “At Wimbledon, you’re very cognizant of making sure that everything’s ‘good to go’ the moment you walk on the court – making sure that you have a tampon. A lot of women have pads on top of that, or making sure that you have an extra-large tampon before you go on the court. I think it might have been the one time that I actually left the court at Wimbledon, when I did have my period. The match went three sets and I had to go off and change.”
That view is echoed by Tatiana Golovin, the former Russian-born French player and mixed-doubles French Open winner. “For an athlete, it’s very tricky to wear white because you have the photographers, you have pictures everywhere, you’re sliding on the court, you’re falling, you’re playing, your skirt’s flying up,” she says. “I’ve always thought that it’s better to wear something darker, just to feel more comfortable.”
But when Golovin appeared at the 2007 Championships wearing red shorts it sparked a flurry of headlines. “Cheeky Golovin refuses to drop her red knickers” read one. “Golovin is getting her red knickers in a twist,” said another. Ever after, organisers clamped down on coloured undergarments.
Golovin maintains the reason for wearing the shorts was not because she was worried about coming on her period – she simply forgot to take them off after her warm-up. Nevertheless, she has mixed feelings towards having to wear white as a female player. “It’s something that is always on your mind when you’re a woman who has to come to Wimbledon,” says Golovin, 34, who still keeps her treasured red shorts in the loft of her Paris home. “I feel no one’s really said anything because maybe no accidents have ever happened. Women have always kind of just dealt with it. I think they [organisers] would obviously take this very seriously if it were an issue and if people would complain.”
While the tradition of wearing white at Wimbledon continues, organisers have upped their efforts around female athlete health: from making sanitary products available in women’s changing rooms, to a dedicated medical team, support for players on their period is at an all-time high.
“We want to ensure we are prioritising women’s health and providing players with anything they require,” says an All England Club representative.
‘Nobody wants to see the all-white rule change’
It is the sort of help Stubbs craved. She still vividly remembers the day, aged 25, she withdrew an hour before a doubles match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics because her period pains were so unbearable. “I was on the floor throwing up,” she recalls. “I felt like I got hit by a train. I didn’t really know the extent of the pain that was about to come crashing down on me.”
So debilitating were her symptoms that Stubbs ended up going on the pill for almost a decade to improve her menstrual health. Her experience has shaped her outlook on how menstruation is perceived in tennis. “Nobody wants to see the all-white rule change at Wimbledon,” she says. “It’s what makes Wimbledon so special and it’s something other players enjoy. What needs to be discussed more is understanding that every month there are some players who really do deal with a lot of pain and have to go out on the court and still give 100 per cent.”
Whitaker shares the sentiment, but is at pains to point out an unintended consequence of the strict all-white code can force players to manipulate the timing of their monthly bleed. “I’m delighted to live in a world where the pill is available but I would not want anyone to feel pressurised to take an extremely strong medication with side effects simply because of a clothing policy that disadvantages women,” she says. “I can’t believe more people don’t come into press [conferences] and say, ‘Well, you try playing a tennis match in all white with your period! It’s mind-blowing.”