Wimbledon may be quintessentially English but it takes an American to keep it looking that way. Carola Long reports

It might be football that's billed as "the beautiful game", but really the epithet should belong to tennis, too. The iconography of tennis fashion – the summery grace of crisp white skirts, polo shirts and plimsolls – has the edge over soccer any day. After all, Anna Wintour cuts into her beauty sleep to play in the mornings and Chanel has seven styles of tennis racket to choose from. It's also a look that has inspired Polo Ralph Lauren's classic, preppy sportswear; and in turn the company is helping to keep the quintessential look of English tennis alive. Polo Ralph Lauren has been the official outfitters of Wimbledon – clothing everyone from the umpires to the linesmen and the ball girls – since 2006, and has just announced that it will continue to design the outfits until 2015.

"We were inspired by the way that we dreamt Wimbledon looked in the past, but actually never really did," says David Lauren, the son of founder Ralph and the company's Senior Vice President of Advertising, Marketing and Corporate Communications. "And when you look at the range now, it seems like it has been at Wimbledon forever."

The on-court uniforms remain the same, but the Wimbledon fashion collection changes each year. This season, it's all preppy cable knits with navy or yellow double-stripe trims, floppy white skirts and structured navy and white blazers with contrasting piping. Anyone who subscribes to the Federer school of classic sportswear will appreciate its Hampshire-meets-the Hamptons aesthetic. To create the traditional, nostalgic look of the collection, the brand went back to the past. "We really are students of history," explains Lauren, whose glossy-haired looks make him a perfect poster boy for the brand. He is the mastermind behind a recent live internet tennis clinic with brand ambassador Boris Becker. "We studied a lot of the old Twenties, Thirties and Fifties tennis looks that were popular at the time and took inspiration from that, along with early pictures of students at Oxford and Cambridge." That explains the Brideshead feel to the designs, a look that Ralph Lauren brought to his costumes for the film version of the Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby. Lauren also created the wardrobe for Annie Hall, including the preppy whites that Woody Allen and Diane Keaton wear for a tennis doubles date at the start of the film.

Unsurprisingly, the look of the collection is quintessentially English. After all, with its Pimms, strawberries and cream, queuing and passionate support of the underdog, Wimbledon could hardly be more representative of the national character. "It has an old English sensibility that we needed to protect," says Lauren. "We worked very closely with the partners of the All England Lawn Tennis Club to give them what they wanted."

Ralph Lauren's designs have always owed a lot to English chic. David says, "We've always been inspired by England; my father's first store was here. There has always been an international sensibility for the company and it was named Polo, which people think of as an English sport. He was inspired by the game's international elegance on and off the field. Polo has always had an old-fashioned aristocratic English feel." Lauren says his father considers his Anglophilia to be almost in his blood, explaining that "he grew up in the Bronx, and it came from looking at classic movie stars such as Cary Grant and looking at old pictures of the Windsor family."

While the enduring image of Wimbledon is one of tradition, with the dress code stipulating that players should "dress almost entirely in white", challenging convention has been a sport in itself. The first men's championship was in 1877, and players wore long white trousers, a collared shirt with long sleeves, a tie and possibly a blazer. When the women's competition began in 1884, the clothes were unbelievably restrictive. The first female champion, Maud Watson, wore a long white skirt, high-necked white blouse, a boater, layers of petticoats and a corset. The outfit, as the periodical Pastime observed, was "tight where it should be loose and loose where it should be tight". However, in 1905, May Sutton, the first American player to play at Wimbledon, caused a stir by rolling up her sleeves, and in 1919 the pin-up Suzanne Lenglen wore the first short skirt with visible stocking tops. As Honor Godfrey, curator of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum observed, "she got away with it because she was amazing to watch; balletic and graceful".

In 1933, Bunny Austin became the first player on centre court to wear shorts, but in the same year, Helen Jacobs was ordered not to wear them. The Ralph Lauren look recalls Thirties players such as Bill Tilden and Fred Perry who epitomised the Gatsby look in their pristine blazers and ribbed sleeveless jerseys; Bunny Austin's shirts always had a crisp crease, too. In 1949, "Gussie" Moran caused a major furore, to the delight of the crowd, when she wore a pair of lace-trimmed knickers by the tennis designer Ted Tinling. That same year, the "all-white" rule was introduced, though it was modified to "predominantly in white" in 1963 to allow for coloured headwear – opening the doors to such later fashion statements as Bjorn Borg's memorable headbands. However, the rule didn't prevent Anne White taking to the court in a clingy unitard in 1985. Officials asked her to dress more traditionally the next day. In 1991, Andre Agassi turned up in a pair of Lycra shorts under white denim, having played the French Open the previous year in hot pink.

In 2008, audiences were divided into two camps. Roger Federer wore Gatsby-esque polo shirt, long white trousers and monogrammed cardigan as he walked up to collect his prize, while Rafael Nadal made the most of those biceps by wearing a sleeveless top above his below-the-knee shorts (not seen at Wimbledon since 1927). No prizes for guessing whose look Lauren admires. "I think Federer dresses very well," he says, "he has very nice style, real elegance and it's reflected in the way he plays and the way he dresses. It is fun to watch Nadal and I enjoy his play and his colourful energy, but I do prefer to see more classic outfits at Wimbledon."

Nadal is by no means the most experimental dresser on the circuit, however. Venus Williams probably secured that title when she took to the court at the French Open this year wearing a black lace burlesque dress that looked like it came from Ann Summers. What does David Lauren make of that? "Tennis does need variety, excitement and personality," he says tactfully. "I think it's fun and it keeps people interested in the sport. At Wimbledon, however, there is a mood and an attitude that is Old World, classic and traditional. We wanted to make sure that that sense of history is not lost, but is continued and improved. People sometimes say we are as English as the English."

Comments