In Friday’s “worst dressed at the Open” post, I flippantly claimed credibility as an arbiter of tennis fashion. Of course, anyone who reads this blog knows I have little credibility in fashion, or anything else, for that matter.
One of our blog readers, however, does bring some serious cred to the topic of fashion: Robin Hauck, founder and editor of the sleek and chic Misstropolis magazine. Robin may well be the coolest person I know—so cool she once landed on the list of Most Stylish Bostonians in The Boston Globe.
According to Robin, I was wrong (!) to nominate Naomi Osaka in the worst-dressed poll. Normally I brook no dissent on my blog, but seeing as I’m still waiting for my own Most Stylish nomination, I decided to ask Robin to elaborate. Man, did she ever set me straight.
Many thanks to her for this powerful post, running simultaneously on Misstropolis.
GAME. SET. MATCH.
Legendary New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”
This year, everyday life took a bye. It skipped the tournament completely. Look all you want, you won’t find the everyday life we took for granted as recently as February 1, when American Sofia Kenin beat Spain’s Garbine Muguruza in the finals of the 2020 Australian Open.
I wonder what Bill Cunningham, sitting on his bicycle with his camera around his neck looking at the deserted streets of New York City, would have said about this year’s realities. This year, the armor’s gotta be strong as hell, ‘cause it has a lot to battle against.
For those who love sports and adore (dare I say worship?) the professionals who play them, athletes’ fashion choices take on outsized significance. Athletes enter the court, field or arena donning their chosen armor, indicating immediately which battle they’ve come to fight. The media responds, social channels go nuts and the messages conveyed by those style choices get debated sometimes for weeks on end. I could go on about Serena’s notorious 2018 tutu dress for days, if you want to go there.
Athletes leading the way
This season, NBA players don jerseys that bear messages where their names used to be, powerful missives like Say Their Names, Love Us, Anti-Racist, How Many More and Black Lives Matter. You cannot watch a game without reflecting on the urgency behind those words.
Members of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream led a coordinated demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter. Dream members wore black t-shirts in support of the opponent of Senator Kelly Loeffler, a part-owner of the team, who denounced the BLM movement. Other WNBA teams wore black t-shirts in support of the movement, despite warnings from the league against using clothing for political reasons.
For their season opener against the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick added a patch bearing the name Fritz Pollard, the first black coach in the NFL, to his visor. Belichick said he was “honored to have worn this today and I appreciate the opportunity to recognize Fritz Pollard for all he’s done…”
Now serving, Naomi Osaka
At the U.S. Open this year, in the fan-devoid stadiums, cheered on by bizarre Zoom-like digital fan zones, some players came in simple armor, simply to play tennis, like Sofia Kenin in basic Fila.
Some endured Nike’s bizarre nod to Andre Agassi’s 1990 neon explosion, like Victoria Azarenka who defeated the always fashion-notable, perennially chic Serena Williams in the semis.
But one player came to battle more monstrous opponents—police brutality, systemic racism, white silence—and she came to win. Both on the court and on the larger global stage, with a powerful message of solidarity with BLM, 22-year-old Naomi Osaka stood out. Ombre curls loose over her visor, Kobe Bryant jersey after her wins, color blocked bodysuit with the cut-out in the back, her unique, fearless style was on display on center court. But it was her “Not today, Covid” style—face masks bearing names of black Americans lost to police violence—that was the real armor.
Osaka, whose Japanese and Haitian heritage makes her a proud IBPOC, has a slightly awkward and tentative public persona. She doesn’t savor the spotlight like Serena or charm the media like Lindsay Vonn or Alex Morgan. But with her deliberate and well-calibrated succession of seven face masks, she made it clear which battle she had come to fight, even as she methodically dominated every match, defeating every opponent she met on the court.
On September 13 she tweeted, “I would like to thank my ancestors because everytime I remember their blood runs through my veins I am reminded that I cannot lose.”
Each time she won, fans wondered whose name would grace the mask she’d wear to the next match. Her masks became part of her performance and in that way her armor became not just a shield but a weapon.
In one interview, Osaka expressed dismay at the fact that the list of names far exceeded the number of possible matches, even if she made it all the way to the final. But each time she showed up to play, wearing giant headphones and Nike’s over-the-top, Agassi-inspired warm-up jackets, she brought widespread awareness to the name on her mask:
- Breonna Taylor, the African American nurse shot dead by police who raided her apartment in Kentucky in March
- Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old black man who died last year after police in Colorado restrained him with a chokehold that is now banned
- Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man chased down and fatally shot by two white men while jogging through his Georgia neighborhood in February
- Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old high school student fatally shot by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012
- George Floyd, murdered by officer Derek Chauven who knelt on his neck until he lost consciousness
- Philando Castile, 32-year-old black man killed at a traffic stop by Hispanic officer Jeronimo Yanez in 2016
- Tamir Rice, 12-year-old boy killed in Cleveland by officer Timothy Loehmann
Using the spotlight to her advantage
Like the NBA and WNBA players wearing messages on their shirts, like the women at the Golden Globes who wore black in support of the #metoo movement, Osaka respects and embraces the responsibility she has as a public figure in a global spotlight and weaponizes her style for good.
What is style but confidence? What is real fashion but fearlessness, eclipsing the status quo and provoking thought?
“For me, I just want people to have more knowledge. I feel like the platform that I have right now is something that I used to take for granted and I just feel like I should be using it for something.”
For having the courage to give voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves, Naomi Osaka was the true style influencer of this year’s U.S. Open. Bill Cunningham knew real fashion played out on the street and that you don’t need a runway to have a fashion show. Keep your eye on the courts and you’ll see how a true style icon comes into her own, bouncing a little yellow ball while the world watches.