Vitale Barberis Canonico

White côteline, or playing tennis in the 1910s

In the early 20th century, Berlin was not yet the decadent Babylon of the Roaring Twenties. It was the capital of the Prussian spirit, but also hedonistic and rich, the capital of the German Empire, the Second Reich which would collapse after the defeat in the Great War. Between 1912 and 1914, Berlin was expanding rapidly. Within a few years it would become the most extended city in the world, and the third largest in terms of number of inhabitants. There was the underground, there were skyscrapers, shops, factories, churches, barracks, fashion houses, zoos, museum, synagogues. And tennis courts.

Photo of Alexanderplatz in the 1910s

White is the colour of tennis. It stands out against the red clay or the grass courts. Tennis players are athletes like marble statues, dynamic and hard, like futuristic dancers and the white helps to silhouette them against the background. People who play tennis have always preferred white cotton sportswear, tight, but soft. Also in Berlin in the 1910s.

On the tennis courts of the Berlin of those days, people wore clothes made of coteline, always white, but given a finishing touch with coloured edging. Some samples preserved in the Vitale Barberis historical archives illustrate the story of an unknown French fabric manufacturer who supplied the Berlin tennis players with his cotelines. All white, all variations on a theme. And in a certain way, it was a fashion in and of itself: tennis clubs, as all clubs, have always had a dress code. Whoever visits, whether they want to play or not, must be dressed appropriately, as if a game were waiting or had just finished. The “uniform” in coteline was correct even for non-players, even if the club members were too old or too lazy to join a game, even those who had no talent for racquets and balls. The tennis club was a world of its own. Also in the 1910s in Berlin.

Striped fabric sample from the Vitale Barberis Canonico archive
The historical fabric of the archive.
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Seersucker fabric from the Vitale Barberis Canonico collection
The fabric of the Vitale Barberis Canonico collection.

Let us look for example at Gélieustraße, near the Botanical Gardens, along the road to Potsdam. In 1913, the Steglitzer Tennis Club was founded. On their website, (the club is still going strong), they say that, if dancing had been recognised as an official sport in 1913, the club would not have been established. In fact, the idea came from 8 dancers who wanted to make use of the summer season, when dances were not held, to keep in shape with another kind of sport. And tennis was ideal for that: hard, but not too traumatic, made up of running, turning and jumping, just like dancing. Photos from that era show the whiteness of the “uniforms”. Perhaps one or two of them were also wearing French coteline.

And what can be said about Roman Najuch (1883-1967) and Otto Froitzheim (1884-1962), the two great German champions of those time (the former won the German Cup in 1913 and 1914, the latter won the Paris World Hard Court Championships in 1912). Did they also wear shirts and shorts made of coteline? Under their jumpers or cardigans, made of cotton or wool decorated with cable or ribbing (like everybody else), they wore the must-have brilliant white, including even their leather tennis shoes.

Photo of Otto Froitzheim in 1913

In a “bulletin” of the “Société industrielle de Saint-Quentin et de l’Aisne” in 1904, it can be seen that “on appelle côteline, un tissu toile sur lequel un gros fil, ou plusieurs travaillant ensemble, simulent en hauteur une espèce de petite côte”. Coteline was developed as an upholstery material, but if produced using lighter yarns and with a less dense composition, the same fabric was more suitable for clothing and was unisex, because tennis, from a colour point of view, does not take the player’s sex into account, nor their age, their background, etc. The simply-woven fabric, really a plain, is softened by one or more yarns in relief which give it a ribbed look with bands side by side. Or the same fabric can be seen with “rayures” cutting through it, but always in the same rhythm. The coteline which the Berlin tennis players preferred in those last few years of peace was a white background with regular, diagonal “grooves” and decorated with (single or double) fillets in blue, brown, black or green vertically down the sides.

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