PARIS — When Grand Slam champion Venus Williams stepped onto a French Open court in a see-through black lace dress with a red-trimmed top, the beleaguered lace industry let out a cheer.
Williams' corsetlike outfit — reminiscent of a 19th-century Parisian cancan chorus costume — startled many sports fans and prompted wolf whistles and catcalls. But it also intrigued fashion insiders, and lace designers are now hoping Williams' bold ensemble might boost their game.
"Seeing a tennis woman of Venus' caliber dolled up in lace and resembling more of a figure skater will hopefully revive the industry at a time when French lace makers are going out of business one after the other," said Isabelle Tartier, director of Paris-based Frank Sorbier, one of the few fashion houses that still uses lace.
The lace industry better enjoy this while it can. Williams said Friday that once she leaves the French Open the dress will be "retired."
"As great as the design is, I really want the focus to be on the tennis," she said.
Tartier blamed the industry's economic woes on cheaper Chinese-industrialized lace flooding the market.
"(It) is rarely made up of 100 percent cotton like French handmade lace, and is supplemented with chemicals such as polyamide, which produces cheaper thread," she said.
Julien De la Rue, finance director at lace factory Solstiss in northern France, said his company's sales had dropped in the last three years from $38 million in 2006 to $19 million in 2009.
"We've seen a decrease in demand these last two years primarily because lace has gone out of fashion. Designers prefer to use leather nowadays, so you simply don't see it on the catwalk," he said.
Williams designed the dress and has run her own fashion line Eleven since 2007.
"Lace has never been done before in tennis, and I've been wanting to do it for a long time," she said after her victory over Patty Schnyder on Sunday.
Williams' burlesque outfit, with its tutu and frills, didn't do much to disguise her skin-tone underwear and its "illusion of bareness," as Venus described. That illusion — suggesting that she was naked under the lace — is what set tongues wagging and photographers snapping wildly at her muscled, taupe-covered derriere.
"What's the point of wearing lace when there's just black under? The illusion of just having bare skin is definitely for me a lot more beautiful," Williams said.
Marcellous L. Jones, editor of Fashion Insider.com magazine, agreed.
"I thought she looked sublime," he said.
"Her mix of cancan and pompom girl look brought cheer and entertainment to a tournament that has become dully predictable. I think it's great publicity for Roland Garros and great for the female tennis players who have become sidelined by the men," he said.
In terms of tennis fashion, women have always had a leg up on their male counterparts. Rafael Nadal's onetime preference for clamdigger pants and sleeveless shirts have nothing on the catsuit that Venus' sister Serena Williams wore to the U.S. Open in 2002.
Nor did Andre Agassi's denim shorts and multicolored shirts compare to Anna Kournikova's micro-miniskirts or Maria Sharapova's tuxedo-inspired ensemble at Wimbledon in 2008.
For designer Frank Sorbier, female tennis fashion has always been about breaking rules.
"When French tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen started playing in the 1920s, she was the first to invent a new style of dressing, which insisted upon wearing short skirts and exposing the player's bare arms. The aim was to liberate the body and leave it free to move," Sorbier said.
The tribute was fitting: Venus Williams wore her flouncy lace skirt in a match on the Suzanne Lenglen Court at Roland Garros.
"It is like a return to the past and a desire to liberate the body once again," Sorbier said.
Asked whether he would consider collaborating with Williams to produce a new tennis fashion line, he said "the door was open."
But partner Isabelle Tartier said even if Venus has a good eye she requires more fashion schooling.
"Her colors need a bit of work. The red and black, which smacks of a lingerie get-up, is a definite fashion faux pas," she said.
Joanna Nowak, a Polish tennis coach, objected for other reasons.
"Her lingerie-lace dress is completely unsuitable for tennis," she said, although Williams was not in violation rules by the French Tennis Federation and World Tennis Association.
Amy Erceg, a student from Milwaukee vacationing in Paris, questioned whether the outfit was in good taste.
"Lace should remain in the bedroom," she said.
Other spectators at Roland Garros on Friday were more appreciative.
"It looked very sporty and it showed off her figure," said Estelle Batty, a 33-year-old office assistant from France. "But, personally, I couldn't get away with it."