Perspective | Fashion, basketball and the long game

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If watching young basketball players being recruited into the professional leagues is not a regular pastime, the WNBA draft — and its NBA counterpart — might easily call to mind those long ago elementary school days when students lined up in a row and waited to be picked by a discerning team captain with a mildly sadistic streak. Who’s chosen first? Who’s picked second? Who will bear the agony of being a grudging final selection? The timeless ritual celebrates speed and grace; and at the professional level, it can set the stage for future wealth, fame and influence.

The recent WNBA draft was the Caitlin Clark version of this tradition, the one in which the expanded audience that Clark brought to women’s basketball during her years playing for the Iowa Hawkeyes followed her to the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday night where, as was expected, she was drafted by the Indiana Fever. Hers was the first name called in the 2024 cycle and when asked about her success, Clark said: “I earned it. That’s why I’m so proud of it.”

Clark, the woman picked first, was aglow in beautiful, inspiring confidence. She was also dressed by Prada. And that looked good, too.

Clark wore a white satin miniskirt with a matching work shirt, along with a cropped top embroidered in silver rhinestones, plus assorted Prada accessories — black slingbacks, a small black handbag and sunglasses — to finish off the ensemble. The look was a balance of sporty, sexy and chic. Clark noted that it was the first time Prada had dressed an athlete for the WNBA basketball draft and there was no mistaking the brand’s presence. Most everything had a Prada logo affixed to it.

It’s no surprise that Clark, who has already stepped outside the realm of women’s basketball and onto the bigger pop culture stage, would entice one of fashion’s bold face brands to wrap her in its embrace for this high-profile moment of transition. This is the era in which women’s basketball is expected to explode, drawing the audience, accolades and financial windfall it has long deserved. But we are already generations deep in athletes understanding the power that fashion has to quickly define them as something more than an extraordinary confluence of muscle, height and tenacity.

Sports is rooted in the body of the athlete, but it’s still impossible to ignore the degree to which the body of an athlete is discussed as if it’s something that’s apart from the person. Players are referred to as “undersized,” and pundits note that a team needs a “big” player. There’s talk of “professional physiques” and players are introduced by their height and weight, which might be necessary information for recruiters and armchair coaches but it still has the effect of transforming a person into a thoroughbred.

And so fashion becomes more than a way to court endorsement deals or to lay the groundwork for business opportunities. Fashion is, in some ways, a reflection of personhood. In the NBA, fashion has become a side competition, a way to peacock and to brag. The players have become influential leaders in menswear, helping their male fans become more experimental, more adventurous, in their own wardrobes. In the WNBA, fashion is a delight in which the players indulge. The players aren’t leading fashion; they’re following it, playing with it. And that’s no insignificant thing. They’re expanding the ways in which women can express their style in the same way that women in finance or politics have pushed the boundaries for how they express their power, skill and ambition.

For some, a simple pantsuit — sometimes worn without a shirt — is more than enough fashion. Dyaisha Fair, drafted by the Las Vegas Aces, wore a black tuxedo with glittering lapels, a red bow tie and sneakers. She was a rebuke to those who want female athletes to wear skirts and dresses when they’re off the court so that they fit into a preconceived idea about what’s ladylike or feminine or appropriate.

Angel Reese was chosen by the Chicago Sky after announcing her intention to leave Louisiana State University to enter the draft in an interview with Vogue. She embraced the “bayou Barbie” moniker bestowed on her at LSU — inspired by her fashion, her eyelashes and her overall style — and wore a sleeveless, hooded silver dress with a plunging neckline by Bronx and Banco. Instead of pulling away from the stereotype of a painted and polished beauty, Reese revels in it — making her no less a threat on the court. It’s a point that should be obvious, but sometimes, folks need to be reminded to open their eyes and recognize what’s been in front of them all along.

There still tends to be a stubborn belief that fashion is only for a certain kind of woman, which is to say that only a few women are allowed to express themselves as fully as they might desire. The newest WNBA players made it plain that there’s a multitude of ways to revel in their athleticism. Perhaps it’s with the Balmain dress with a side slit that reaches the hipbone and assorted cutouts that Cameron Brink was wearing when she was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks. Power isn’t diminished by striving for pretty but pretty isn’t a prerequisite for femininity.

In the WNBA, fashion reflects the ways in which women’s sports is evolving and has evolved, but it also speaks to the way in which fashion functions for women outside that community. For women who are prejudged or underestimated or expected to color between the lines of humble and self-effacing, fashion is a rebellious act. It is one of the most powerful, individualistic things a person can do.

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