Venus Fashions Controversy With Style
PARIS -- What you have to decide about Venus Williams' dress is whether it is fashion art or pornography. Is she trying to appear nude or just naked?
Williams wore The Dress again Wednesday, see-through with lace covering skin-toned underwear, while playing fantastic tennis. She beat Arantxa Parra Santonja, 6-2, 6-4, in the second round of the French Open. But the buzz here is not about a 29-year-old star stepping up her game, reaching one more time for the top.
Instead, it is about her bottom.
"The design has nothing to do with the rear," she said. "It just so happens that I have a very well-developed one."
"It's all genetic. If you look at my mom and dad, you'll see the same thing happening. If you look at my sister [Serena], you'll see the same thing.''
What we learned was that Venus was a little surprised to learn in Australia, where she wore her first version of this dress, that people thought she was going commando.
So Serena showed Venus a picture of herself from behind.
Venus talked at length about her dress after her second-round victory, the response it got, how successful she feels the design was, how she didn't realize how closely the color of her underwear would match her skin.
Remember, she has a degree in fashion, and designs her own dresses.
"It's really all about the illusion,'' she said. "What's the point of wearing lace when there's just black under?"
The illusion she was going for, she said, was bareness.
Tennis has had such a proper and stuffy and exclusive past, that this moment, with Venus' dresses in Australia, Miami and now here in France, could actually stand as a marked moment in the sport's history. It will take a while to figure out how that moment is defined, though I have my own ideas.
In the past, players have been fined for their outfits. That's not going to happen here. A picture of Williams, in the dress, is the cover of Wednesday's program at Roland Garros.
And Williams said that no one at the Australian Open or the French has asked her to cover up.
"I was getting calls from my publicist in the middle of the night," she said. "I was like, 'Well, the last time this happened, there were rumors I was married. So what's going on?' It's gone to a whole other plane that I never was designing for."
Williams said the response to her dress was unexpected. I don't agree. This was exactly the response she was looking for, and it has led to a clean divide in opinion, as is always the case with the Williams sisters.
She wore a dress in Australia with the skin-colored underwear, and the shock started there. So how did she address that outcry? She put see-through lace over it, emphasizing it.
That is not an accident, but a statement.
Some think she looks beautiful, or sexy. Some would like to come after her with a pitchfork. Some say she is insulting women's sport. Some say she is championing female form. Some say beautiful, some say ugly.
I have spent a week going through these French museums, such as the Louvre, where the other Venus stands: Venus de Milo.
Here, Venus is not a tennis player, but instead a study of the ideal female form.
And you learn that so many of these artworks, classics now, created outcry at the time. Shocking, ugly, dirty. They've been fighting this same argument like the one over Williams' dress for hundreds of years. They've had the same outcry.
It's also the kind of discussion artists want. So I told Venus Wednesday that she had clearly provoked a response. And assuming she sees her fashion as art, what response was she trying to provoke?
"The first part is that I designed it for me. . ." she said. "As far as how I might expect people to respond, it's just different and unique. Because I feel like even in my game, style, attitude, personality, the way I approach my life is different and unique. So I feel my fashion style is also the same, especially lately."
She probably crossed some line here, because from the back, when her dress flies up as she serves, the illusion is that she's flashing. But she is pushing a boundary in a sport that always needs its boundaries pushed. For years, she has been reserved and somewhat traditional publicly, but her career had started to go too quietly.
And when she emerged with these dress designs this year, she started showing increased aggressiveness and defiance. She has taken that to the courts. And after being No. 1 for just 11 weeks in her entire career, she could be there again by a week from Monday.
Frankly, more than being outraged, I feel closer to cheering her on for her attack on convention, her confidence and her success.
"I try to represent what I think my personality is on the court,'' she said, describing her design process. "The second part is, sometimes you just dream it up. Sometimes you can see a dress and say, 'Hey, I really like those slits, so let me put that in my tennis dress.' Or, 'I'm dying to try lace. How can we do that on the court and make it work?'
"Sometimes, it's like, 'Oh, here is the challenge.' Sometimes it's like, 'Oh, suddenly a bright idea.' It's always different."
It's a strange thing to see fashion and sport combine into one. I am not a fashion expert. You cover sports for a living and the people you write about usually wear a uniform and helmet.
Here, we're talking about lace. But the mix of lace and Venus' game, which has no soft touches, is different.
This Venus is lace mixed with power, muscle and loud grunting.
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