She was one of the most familiar figures of the freewheeling 1970s, but no one saw her face and few people knew her name.
She was known simply as “Tennis Girl”, an anonymous leggy blonde caught scratching her bare bum on a tennis court bathed in late afternoon sunlight.
The mildly provocative 1976 photograph (below) by Martin Elliott went on to become one of the cultural touchstones of the era. Although it was banned in some countries, a poster-size version produced by the calendar publisher Athena sold more than 2 million copies. Most of them hung in college dorm rooms around the world, competing with Farrah Fawcett for dominion over a generation of young men’s fantasies.
Tennis Girl’s appeal was almost primal. Youthful, playful, sexy and slightly mysterious, the photo seemed to capture a candid moment in a young woman’s life that revealed a sensual spirit beneath the proper tennis attire. Seriously, who doesn’t wear underwear to a tennis match?
The model, 18-year-old Fiona Butler, never got a nickel for the iconic image shot at Birmingham University by her then-boyfriend, and didn’t reveal her identity until a 2007 newspaper interview.
Today, however, Tennis Girl is getting another spin in the sun as the centerpiece of an inspired photo campaign by UK loungewear innovator Kriss Soonik.
Soonik and photographer Kristel Raesaar recreated the famous image in tribute to the original Tennis Girl and to promote her label’s highly original tennis-themed pieces for spring 2014.
“It’s the accidental sexiness which I find captivating, the unexpected, caught-in-the-moment feeling,” Soonik said of the 1976 photo, which she discovered while putting together a creative concept for her new collection.
But Soonik’s personal connection with tennis — including its fashion and iconography — goes back a long way. In fact, the Estonian-born designer was named after 1970s tennis star Chris Evert, who was her father’s favorite player.
“My parents believed that I would follow the lead and become a great tennis player,” she told Lingerie Talk. “But after 9 years of tennis lessons, finally in high school it became clear that I wouldn’t become a professional. That was the moment when I had to find a new hobby and tennis got substituted with fashion design.”
“Years later, when I was already designing and studying at London College of Fashion, I went through heaps of luxury lingerie books and discovered an image of a tennis player with frilly knickers. To my surprise it turned out to be Chris Evert (above) with her infamous frilly knickers,” she added.
“So maybe it was my destiny to become a lingerie designer and not a professional tennis player all along.”
That destiny is apparent in Soonik’s spring collection, which blurs the line between sporty activewear and erotic underwear. As always with this 5-year label, categories are pointless; last season, Soonik delivered a pair of kendo shorts that could turn heads in a bedroom or a dojo.
The highlight of the new collection is the Kristel suspender top (below), a reimagined piqué polo shirt with built-in suspender straps that you can let dangle or attach to your favorite thigh-highs.
Soonik spent years exploring ideas for a tennis-themed garment, and eventually based it on the multi-purpose Kristel body that has been a signature piece in her catalogue for several seasons. This time, though, it’s been adapted to put a sexy spin on that most ubiquitous — and preppiest — boyfriend fashion staple, the polo shirt.
The Kristel Polo is offered in both a sleeveless tank and a T-shirt with puffy feminine sleeves and pearl buttons to distinguish it from all the other boring Lacoste knockoffs.
There’s a matching piqué cotton thong with a gold Kriss Soonik metal label in back and — another tribute to her sporting roots — a delicate lace Kristel Polo knicker with a coquettish ruffle on the backside. Just like Chrissie Evert would have worn back in the day.
And just the thing that Tennis Girl might have chosen, had she known the whole world would be staring at her bottom.
Here are some more shots from the SS2014 campaign, titled ‘A Match of Tennis’ and featuring several other playful and hard-to-categorize pieces from this most amusing of designers.