Originally created 09/22/03

Secrets behind the 'Battle of the Sexes' dress

In the days leading up to Billie Jean King's monumental confrontation with self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, the American public was spared few details about their $100,000 winner-take-all "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match, which took place 30 years ago this month.

Newspaper readers knew that the 29-year-old King was wolfing down Three Musketeers bars and Vitamin E, while Riggs, 55, was devouring fistfuls of vitamins and bushels of avocados. They knew which theme songs had been chosen for the event: "Conquest," from an old Tyrone Power movie, for Riggs, while King's choice, "I am Woman," would be performed live by Helen Reddy. They even knew that heavyweight champion George Foreman would present the trophy to the winner, that Howard Cosell would deliver play-by-play and that Surrealist Salvador Dali would be among the spectators seated in the VIP section of the Houston Astrodome.

Riggs and King, however, remained curiously secretive about what they would wear. Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champion turned tennis hustler, kept reporters guessing until he emerged on the day of the match in a yellow polo shirt proclaiming him the spectacle's "Sugar Daddy." When King's designer, legendary British tennis couturier Ted Tinling, touched down at New York City's Kennedy Airport with her attire, he refused to submit his bags for inspection, announcing to customs officials and press alike that his client would discard any outfit exposed to the light of day.

Once Tinling was spirited off to King's Houston hideaway, he opened his luggage to reveal a silk-lined dress of opalescent cellophane threads stitched onto nylon. Resplendent in the shimmering fabric, King "looked great in it," the designer wrote in his 1979 biography, "and we were both delighted." But moments later, "her expression changed."

Three decades later, King vividly remembers that abrupt shift in her mood: "When I saw it, I said, 'Oh great.' Then I tried it on and I said, 'No, Ted, I can't wear it."' The dress, King told Smithsonian's Ed Leibowitz, was "too scratchy." So the designer's daring yet abrasive masterpiece would be seen neither by the crowd of more than 30,000 in Houston nor by the tens of millions who would tune into the match on national television and by satellite across 36 countries. The dress would vanish from view and even from Tinling's personal collection. To this day, its whereabouts remain unknown. Instead, King chose to wear the designer's backup option - a menthol green and sky blue nylon number whose color scheme paid subtle homage to the fledgling Virginia Slims women's tennis tour, launched two years earlier.

In the dress, on September 20, 1973, she crushed Riggs with her serve-and-volley game, winning the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. "Pigs are Dead ... Long Live the King," read a headline in the Los Angeles Herald American the next day. No wonder the dress earned a place in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. While not Tinling's first choice, the dress, says curator Ellen Roney Hughes, "is still a pretty flashy item. You can see how Billie Jean dressed to take advantage of and enhance the publicity."

History should note, however, that not for a moment did King contemplate facing Riggs in the reigning color of gender stereotypes. "I would never," she says, "have worn pink."


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