Serena Williams Started a Tennis Fashion Movement "Without Even Trying"

The greatest of all time exclusively tells 'Marie Claire' about the looks that defined her career—and the way she beats style double standards now.

Serena Williams stands in front of a wall in Paris wearing a Nike camel trench coat
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tennis fashion is everywhere you look right now, from the polo shirts and pleated mini skirts on luxury runways to Zendaya's back-to-back-to-back red carpet serves on the Challengers press tour. Even when people aren't wearing Wimbledon white, they're thinking about it. Searches for "tennis fashion" have increased 80 percent in the past month, according to Data But Make It Fashion.

This rising interest isn't lost on Serena Williams, the greatest of all time where tennis and its dress codes are concerned. Before setting down her racket in 2022, Williams spent her 27-year career winning Grand Slam after Grand Slam in custom, convention-pushing outfits.

Back then, her fitted Nike dresses weren't common off the court. On the other side of retirement, "I feel that it's completely crossed over—and I've been trying to get that to cross over for a long time," she tells me.

Serena Williams onstage at the Nike Athletes on Air event wearing a custom matching set by Nike and Sacai

Serena Williams's retirement from tennis didn't end her involvement with sport—or with sport fashion. Last week, she appeared on Nike's Air Innovation Summit runway to kick of the Paris Olympics in a custom Nike x Sacai set styled by Kyle Luu.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Speaking with me at the Ritz Paris before walking the runway at Nike's Air Innovation Summit, Williams says she didn't set out to start a style revolution. But by wearing a black catsuit instead of a tennis dress, or swapping a starched white skirt for Y2k denim, she started a movement "without even trying."

"[S]eeing myself and my sister on the big stages of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, being ourselves and wearing great outfits and looking our best, really changed women's sports—which is crazy," she says.

Williams set an example that athletes can bring their whole selves to their game: with or without makeup, in blinged-out uniforms or in functional, straightforward kits. The same mindset applies off the court. As a newly-minted beauty brand founder and the head of a venture capital fund, Williams still dresses in her favorite sport-inspired pieces. After all, tennis fashion was always a lifestyle for her—not a trend.

Ahead, Williams goes deep on the looks that transformed her career and how she's investing in the next generation of women's sports (and style).

Post-retirement, you've been investing in and mentoring up-and-coming talent. When you were still active in tennis, what was the first moment you felt like another athlete invested in you and your career?

I remember one person: Zina Garrison, who was a Black tennis player that I looked up to. [Venus and I] were under 10 and we went to Houston to meet her. First of all, that alone was a lot. If I were at the time she was in her career, it would have been very hard to set up a meeting with these two girls who were talking about making it.

But she spent time with us and she hit with us, too. And I remember thinking, Oh, I could beat her. (I couldn't even really hit with her—I was so little.) That always stuck with me. I was like, wow, that's really cool that she took out that time. I never forgot that.

Now, how are you paying it forward for other young women who are getting started in tennis? What does investing in them look like for you?

It's not just tennis, right? For me, it's more sport. Without even trying to, I was able to inspire a lot of women across all sports. That was really humbling for me and kind of cool at the same time.

For me, it's just talking to women and letting them know that it's okay to be confident. If you're confident in sport as a woman, you're "cocky." As a guy, you're "confident," you know?

What I can do is just pass on my information and encourage other women and inspire them and advise them in any way that I can. That crosses the line of tennis [into] everything that I've done in business.

Serena Williams twirls on the US Open court wearing a custom Off-White leotard and tulle skirt

Serena Williams's approach to tennis fashion came with inventive silhouettes and unexpected materials. In some of her final matches, she wore balletic dresses with tulle skirts and a one-shoulder sleeve, co-designed by Nike and Off-White.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

I love what you said earlier about being an example or inspiration for others without necessarily trying to. I think that also comes through in your approach to style. What was a look that you wore that felt like a turning point in your mind—or gave you a feeling it would have an impact beyond your performance?

I mean, obviously, the cat suit [for the 2018 French Open]. That turned a lot of people on to watching tennis and it was the first time that had been done. Then I think another massive moment was the jeans—that was kind of crazy. I wore this incredible jean skirt and boots. Those two moments were huge.

Now you look at all these amazing women athletes, whether they're in basketball or another sport, they want to be glamorous on the court now, too.

When most people see us, they don't necessarily see us athletes, per se, in our everyday lives. They see us on the court or in the field or whatever we're doing. [Competing], that's our moment to really shine. That was my moment: I'm on stage, time to wear knee-high boots.

Serena Williams serves a tennis ball at the 2018 French Open while wearing a custom Nike compression catsuit

Williams considers her Nike black catsuit, designed to prevent the blood clots she experienced after her first pregnancy, a game-changing outfit. "That turned a lot of people on to watching tennis and it was the first time that had been done," she says.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Serena Williams competes at the 2004 US Open wearing a denim skirt and nike knee high boots

Another legendary look? Her 2004 US Open outfit by Nike, including a denim tennis skirt and knee-high sneaker boots.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Where do you see your impact showing up in terms of sport and style, post-retirement?

I think women in particular are embracing that you can be strong and beautiful at the same time. Before as a lady athlete, you couldn't wear makeup or else you weren't taken seriously. And if you did, then it was like, "Oh, she's not a serious athlete and she won't be as good."

Now you can be strong, you can be beautiful, you can do all of that at the same time. I feel like that narrative, seeing myself and my sister on the big stages of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, being ourselves and wearing great outfits and looking our best, really changed women's sports—which is crazy. But it definitely changed women's sports as a whole.

Also, [it's] in business. You can also look sexy and strong and still be a CEO of a company. I think that whole narrative is a huge conversation and it goes beyond sports at this point.

It's nice to see people working to remove those double standards so that everyone coming up behind them can feel like they can be more of themselves and bring their personality. And if you want to be glamorous, or if you don't, it's your choice.

Serena Williams wears a custom Nike tennis outfit with a corset while playing a tennis match

"I feel like that narrative, seeing myself and my sister on the big stages of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, being ourselves and wearing great outfits and looking our best, really changed women's sports—which is crazy!" Williams says.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

I'm also curious about the ways that "tennis fashion" manifests outside of true sportswear. As someone who knows the sport so intimately, what do you think fashion gets right—or wrong—about tennis style?

Tennis style you can wear, and I think we're seeing this more and more nowadays that you can wear it anywhere. I literally live at home in my tennis skirt and I'm not even playing professional tennis anymore. It's so comfortable.

I see people walking down the street in what is a tennis dress, technically, but they're wearing it as fashion. I feel that it's completely crossed over and I've been trying to get that to cross over for a long time.

They're just really nice, comfortable dresses and they're easy to wear and if you're busy—don't even get me started. I like to multitask. You work out in it, you can go to school, and you can do all kinds of things.

I don't think you can do tennis fashion wrong. I think you can look back in 20 years and say, "Oh my God, you know, those shoulder pads were awful." But by the way, they're still hot and they're still cool and I happen to love shoulder pads. I don't think there's a wrong way to do fashion.

Speaking of crossovers, you're now working in so many different arenas these days: philanthropy, entrepreneurship, fashion, beauty. As you're venturing into new projects, or investing in them, what lessons learned as a full-time athlete prepared you best for the moment you're in now?

Well, hard work. As a full-time athlete, you have to dedicate your entire life to your sport. You have to be very selfish.

As an entrepreneur, you have to have the same attitude. Arguably an athlete works harder in a different way, because it's more physical and you're exhausted. So as an entrepreneur, I'm more mentally exhausted some days, but I'm physically okay. It's just different.

But that hard work, I think, is something that you can't skip because if you want to be the best in tennis, you have to work hard. If you want to be in the best in business, you can't just say, "Oh, I'm gonna be the best." You've learned that lesson that you learned from tennis. Like how did I win that Grand Slam? I worked two years to win that one Grand Slam. So, how do you get your best investment? I worked two years to get to that great investment. I think that I'm looking at it the same way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Halie LeSavage
Senior News Editor (Fashion & Beauty)

Halie LeSavage is the senior fashion and beauty news editor at Marie Claire, where she assigns, edits, and writes stories for both sections. Halie is an expert on runway trends, celebrity style, emerging fashion and beauty brands, and shopping (naturally). In over seven years as a professional journalist, Halie’s reporting has ranged from fashion week coverage spanning the Copenhagen, New York, Milan, and Paris markets, to profiles on industry insiders including stylist Alison Bornstein and J.Crew womenswear creative director Olympia Gayot, to breaking news stories on noteworthy brand collaborations and beauty launches. (She can personally confirm that Bella Hadid’s Ôrebella perfume is worth the hype.) She has also written dozens of research-backed shopping guides to finding the best tote bags, ballet flats, and more. Most of all, Halie loves to explore what trends—like the rise of doll-like Mary Janes or TikTok’s 75 Hard Style Challenge—can say about culture writ large. (She justifies almost any purchase by saying it’s “for work.”) Halie has previously held writer and editor roles at Glamour, Morning Brew, and Harper’s Bazaar. Halie has been cited as a fashion and beauty expert in The Cut, CNN Underscored, and Reuters, among other outlets, and appears in newsletters like Selleb and Self-Checkout to provide shopping recommendations. In 2022, she was awarded the Hearst Spotlight Award for excellence and innovation in fashion journalism. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Harvard College. Outside of work, Halie is passionate about books, baking, and her miniature Bernedoodle, Dolly. For a behind-the-scenes look at her reporting, you can follow Halie on Instagram and TikTok.