If I needed any more proof that we’ve all been living in two Americas for the past 20 years or so, Serena Williams gave it to me a couple of years ago when she scandalized the U.S. Open by wearing a Lycra cat suit on the court. It was scoop-necked, fitted, and bust and butt enhancing — in other words, it was a somewhat more extreme version of what lots of 18-to-45-year-old black women wear all the time. Putting aside the fact that a cat suit had never turned up at a major tennis tournament before, it looked normal. This is not to say that all black women strive to look like nightclubbers (or professional athletes) in broad daylight; it’s just that lots of clothes — thanks to their smallish sizing and the curves black women tend to have in abundance — wind up looking more daring than expected on our bodies. Plus, we do a lot of Lycra anyway, not so much to flaunt our physical bounty but to mitigate the small clothes/big curves problem and thus make our lives a little easier. All of which means that Serena’s cat suit struck me at the time as showy, sure, but also sensible — those little tennis skirts and shift dresses are simply not cut for anybody with real hips. The virtual silence of other black people on the issue confirmed to me that for us, the whole thing was a non-issue.
Now comes Serena’s act two, in which the stakes have risen a notch. Last month at the U.S. Open she again discombobulated the stuffed shirts by wearing outfits more typical of rap-pop princesses like Pink and Beyoncé than of tennis stars: pleated denim miniskirt, studded crop top showcasing a diamond-pierced belly button, black knee-length tennis-shoe attachments that resembled Darth Vader boots. Nike, who makes Serena’s gear, argued function — the skirt material is quick-dry, the “boots” provide calf support — but even the most clueless clothes observer could see this was all about form; Serena made one entrance in an abbreviated black jacket with her name scripted in silver across the back, like a champion boxer. She was officially calling attention to herself, and amid the growing unease of some observers, my only question is — so? Again, what may look vulgar from the lofty height of a tennis referee’s chair, and from the even loftier rules of decorum according to record keepers like The New York Times, looks normal to me.
This is not simply because I also see real-life interpretations of the mini and the midriff every day on black women (actually on all women, certainly in L.A.). The whole look-at-me aesthetic has a long-standing tradition and deeper purpose for us. A history of political marginalization and near social invisibility has constantly challenged black people to make ourselves seen — literally — and what more expedient way to do that than with personal appearance? What better reason to don bright colors, fabulous dresses, exaggerated pants, and big hat feathers even in church, where one sits deferential before God? (It also likely echoes some pre-slavery, West African traditions of adornment and its related rituals; I can’t prove the connection, but I’ll gladly wear it in the meantime.) Of course, much as white Americans may hate us, they love us for thinking big. Whites have always eagerly followed outré black style, though they never understood that we didn’t invent it entirely for fun. Standing out is serious business, the one thing we reserve the unfettered right to do, especially when assimilation chews us up and spits us out, or when its messages become so mixed we can’t read them and thus become psychologically inert. Inertia like that is death to black folks: Clothes and looks are guaranteed to keep us moving and one step ahead of the establishment, a crucial dynamic we can’t seem to replicate in any other way.
Serena knows this on some level, which is why she never feels any need to defend her outfits (or her various hairdos — braids, beads, weaves — which have also gotten people in minor huffs). In fact, she talks them up with a guilelessness that seems to be more vexing to the establishment than the clothes themselves. Her favorite adjectives to describe her unabashedly sexy separates are “fun” and “comfortable.” Of her pleated-mini/crop-top ensemble, she has said, “It’s like a rebel look, when I’m being really rebellious. I’m even chewing gum, and I never chew gum.” Shocking, eh? Her personal pick from her own clothing line, Aneres (Serena spelled backward, get it?), is a teeny leather jacket that she calls a “fun, vintage-y piece.” Suzy Menkes, that internationally read arbiter of couture, couldn’t have said it less controversially.
For Serena, part of the subversion is constantly tripping up media expectations that the girl is as in-your-face as her clothes; she isn’t. She’s sweet, accommodating, earnest, transparent. Her image screams black and bodacious, and she . . . well, she doesn’t scream, period. She doesn’t even use bad language. But Serena definitely wants to be noticed, and she knows that image speaks loudest, especially for blacks, and most especially for blacks in a setting as white as pro tennis has historically been. Serena has also got to be painfully aware of the fact that tennis has lately become a sport that launches the careers of glamour queens such as obligingly blond Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova, yet she and her sister Venus, though lauded for their skills, are conspicuously not among them. On their best days they are powerful and intimidating, but never pretty. One macho Web site, Askmen.com, recently enthused about Serena in a beauty-contest format that evaluated her in five categories; it gave her the least amount of points for “natural beauty” (though it did conclude she had a “remarkable” personality — every ugly girl’s compensatory compliment).
Like I said, if nobody’s out there affirming you, it’s best to do it yourself, even at the risk of looking like a diva or an egoist (which no one seems to mind at all from — in fact, it’s expected of — Anna Kournikova et al). Muhammad Ali made a career of such affirmation, unapologetically preening and calling himself “pretty” so many times, the world finally (if grudgingly) believed him. He also happened to be the best at what he did, which bolstered his claims of beauty in the eyes of a society that was loath to admit bigmouthed blacks were superior in any respect, let alone two.
Serena’s hardly a bigmouth, but she’s a big presence that’s hard to minimize and, as such, she curries resentment — resentment that goes well beyond her high sartorial profile — without having to say anything. But her clothes say plenty, namely that she is good, and that with her tanks and minis she refutes the notion that she’s a tennis machine first and a woman not at all. She certainly believes it, so it may be only a matter of time until the rest of us fall in line.
In the meantime, not to change the subject or anything, but I couldn’t help but notice that Serena’s fashion sense, which dictates that you should be able to wear anything anywhere, is right in step with the designer fall collections this year. Paging through the heftiest W magazine I’ve seen in my lifetime, I was struck at how freely fur got mixed with denim, crystal with cotton, diamonds with bathing suits, and so on. There really are no rules of dress anymore, so why should Serena follow them? Especially since she’s on a world stage that has increasingly fewer boundaries — actors are politicians, white kids are impresarios of hip-hop, and everybody’s a celebrity for the hell of it. In such an atmosphere, Serena’s assertions of self are more than reasonable. “I always considered myself an entertainer,” she remarked last month to The New York Times. “I remember always thinking of myself as a broader picture, as opposed to just your normal athlete.” Now that’s what I call claiming your space.