Patou? Chanel? Lacoste? Fred Perry? Teddy Tinling? Nike? Fila? Adidas? The world’s most famous tennis dress was not made by any of tenniswear’s famous names. Millions of people around the world, from Hollywood stars to serial killers, have fallen for its charm, yet it has never seen the light of Centre Court, Roland Garros or Flushing Meadows.
This dress saw its finest hour on the Birmingham University tennis courts at Edgbaston, worn by a (very) amateur tennis player, accessorised with a baseball cap and not much else. Yes, you guessed it, it’s the dress that was worn by 18-year-old Fiona Butler (now Walker) in the iconic Athena poster ‘Tennis Girl’, photographed by her then boyfriend Martin Elliott during the long hot summer of 1976.
It was a home-made dress, lent, along with the racquet, to Fiona by her friend Carol Knotts who had sewed the dress for herself when she was just 12 years old. I don’t know where the pattern came from, but it looks very similar to number 4 in this Simplicity Misses pattern from 1969.
Interestingly, the title of this post could now just as legitimately be ‘The Most Expensive Tennis Dress in the World?’ because the dress was recently sold by Carol at auction, along with the tennis racquet and some prints of the photograph, for £15,500. Carol said she originally made the dress to save money because ready-made clothes were so expensive at that time. I wonder if the person who bought the dress will ever wear it? Perhaps not at over £15,000!
By the way, if you’ve always thought her feet looked enormous in this image, Fiona recently admitted that she was wearing her father’s plimsolls, borrowed for the photo shoot because she didn’t own any tennis shoes herself. Oh, and the tennis balls belonged to her pet dog.
Although Athena, the original publishers, closed down in 1995, the poster has sold over 2 million copies and is still going strong. Just last year it was reissued as a calendar, with the addition of previously unpublished pictures from the photoshoot.
Having passed from daring erotica to cultural icon, it’s not surprising that so many people have recreated the ‘Tennis Girl’ pose. When I was a child, one of my favourite posters was of the Pink Panther in this pose and I thought it was hilarious despite not having seen the saucy original. Looking at it now I can’t helping feeling the wife-beater string vest was a grave sartorial mistake, although the outfit is somewhat redeemed by the visor.
Here’s a gallery of some more homages to, and parodies of, the ‘Tennis Girl’.