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Scoring the Set. Jean Patou and the tennis court

In and out of the game field, Jean Patou was an innovator, shaping his definition of modernity with designs for sport and leisure.

Tennis, in its modern form, developed in the second half of nineteenth century, when Harry Gem and Augurio Perera founded the first tennis club in Lemmington Spa in 1872. Around the same time, two other people developed similar ideas: Army officer Major Walter Clopton Wingfield patented a similar game, called sphairistikè or ‘the art of playing ball’, at a garden party in his friends’ estate in Wales; Mary Ewing Outerbridge, coming home to the US from Bermuda, brought a sphairistikè set and laid out a tennis court at the Staten Island Cricket Club.

Sport ensemble by Jean Patou and Muguette Buhler, ca. 1934, Courtesy Les Arts Decoratifs, all rights reserved

The game gained a certain popularity, and as its rules evolved, many fashion designers engaged in creating dedicated ensembles. Jean Patou was one of them. Born in 1880 in Normandy, he opened his first atelier ‘Maison Perry’ in 1912 in Paris, closing it in 1914 to serve France during WW1. He reopened his boutique in 1919 and, similarly to his contemporaries Coco Chanel and Lucien Lelong, he became attracted to the new ‘active lifestyle’ fashionable in Europe and the US. Being an active person himself, the designer understood the need to study athletes and their movements to design clothes that would help them in their performances. So, in 1922 he entered the market with a line of sport and activewear, which he continued well into the 1930s.

One year before launching his activewear line, Jean Patou already ventured into sportswear, designing an innovative tennis uniform for the French athlete and Wimbledon player Suzanne Lenglen, to whom he was introduced by his brother-in-law Raymond Barbas, member of the French national team. Lenglen was a talented player; she won Wimbledon and the French Open six times each, setting a record that remained untouched for almost fifty years.

Ensemble for Suzanne Lenglen by Jean Patou, ca. 1920, Courtesy Modemuseum Hasselt

The ensemble Jean Patou designed for Lenglen allowed her to leap towards the ball and swing her racket with a full range of motion. Made of a white, pleated, knee-length skirt, a white, sleeveless cardigan and an orange headband, the outfit was considered quite a dare. The length of the skirt was seen to be socially inconvenient, as it was replacing the hat with a headband and exposing her nude arms. However, Suzanne Lenglen was not one to stick to the rules. With her emancipated flair and charismatic personality, she challenged the norms, values and restraints of ‘femininity’ within society as tenaciously as on the tennis field. A liberated and active woman, the clothes designed by Patou reflected her spirit both in and off the court.

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