Serena Williams's makeover is sleek, but tennis champ is still front and center

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; E10

There is no better tack for repairing an image that has gotten tattered and torn than getting oneself a fashion makeover. It is a reliable source of salvation for any starlet who finds herself in grainy TMZ videos more often than the golden spotlight of "Access Hollywood." The aggrieved political wife has also embraced the fashion makeover, most often in the pages of Vogue, as a form of payback -- comeuppance for the husband who did her wrong.

Now, a sports star has revamped her public image with a combination of weight loss, glitz management and body image confessional.

Tennis champion Serena Williams has updated her style. Fans may recall the pummeling her reputation took last summer after her unsportsmanlike outburst at a U.S. Open line judge.

As Williams comes off a Wimbledon win -- and her 13th grand slam title -- she is receiving plaudits in the August Harper's Bazaar for her leaner physique, which she attributes to pilates, and a fresh bob. She also was photographed at Wimbledon's winners gala clutching her trophy and wearing a metallic gold Burberry minidress from the brand's spring collection. She looked great.

She selected the $3,495 dress with the help of Burberry designer Christopher Bailey -- the creative whiz who blew the dust off the brand's signature tartan and the ultimate personal shopper. The frock, with its slightly weathered patina, was a perfect choice for Williams. The shape is essentially a glorified T-shirt and offers just the right nod to athleticism. The dress is covered unevenly in tiny gold sequins, which prevents Williams from looking as though she is wearing a thick layer of glitz. The frock is intentionally imperfect, which gives it character. It looks like a treasure that might have been uncovered in a vintage shop -- the best vintage shop ever. It does not glimmer with the self-conscious brio of new money. It speaks of sassiness and confidence.

The cut is flattering, too, with its cap sleeves and its tastefully slit neckline. It's a glamorous and even sexy dress, but it exudes both those characteristics effortlessly. Sure, it's short. But why hide such enviably toned legs? It also adheres to the only worthwhile fashion rule in these anything-goes times: Show off one attribute per ensemble -- legs, cleavage, arms, back -- not everything at once. Confidence is restraint. There's no need to display all the assets; dole them out, bit by bit.

In her interview in Harper's Bazaar, Williams talks about finally coming to terms with her body type. Perhaps this is the explanation for such a fine fashion choice. She was not born with the long, lithe physique of her sister Venus. The older sibling has a body that is much less challenging to dress; it's no wonder that designers gravitate to that kind of sleek figure when they're booking runway models. Serena, with all of her curves, envied that ease. She has had to work much harder to suss out which clothes serve her well. The Burberry dress is at least one piece of evidence of a lesson well learned.

Indeed, it is Venus who has been stirring the pot lately with controversial fashion choices on the court. At the French Open, she wore flesh-toned underwear with her tennis skirt, creating the illusion that she'd gone out without her knickers. For another match, she wore an ensemble featuring a corset, which had folks in the media comparing her to a Moulin Rouge cancan dancer. Both startling choices elicited catcalls from the stands.

The pages of supermarket tabloids are littered with proof that just because one can wear something doesn't mean that one should. Surely Venus is familiar with Glamour Don'ts?

These days, Serena is looking -- and more important, sounding -- like the style savant. Serena tells Harper's Bazaar that she has dropped one dress size -- from a 12 to a 10 -- and that her goal was to be less bulky and to gain both knowledge and skills so that, as she ages, she won't "be as wide as this couch."

The style transformation leaves Serena looking a bit more delicate and a little less intimidating -- at least when she's not wielding a tennis racket. Those are positive shifts because they help to quash the image of her confronting that line judge and threatening to shove her tennis racket down the poor official's gullet. In her Burberry look, Williams steers clear of adjectives such as tough or aggressive or downright scary.

The girl in the golden T-shirt dress has a near-beatific glow.

While her words to the magazine are revealing, Williams delivers no mesmerizing fashion moments in Harper's Bazaar. She looks quite pretty and her figure is shown off to fine effect. She looks happy and confident.

But the gold Burberry is the real head-turner. Not just because of its youthful, fizzy spirit, but also because the entire look -- the head-to-toe image -- speaks to a fresh start without drowning her personality. Often, a makeover results in little more than a stunning shell. All evidence of quirks and eccentricities have been purged. The person has been styled to death.

But as Williams poses with her trophy, her fingers are wrapped around its edges. A jeweled ring sparkles from her right hand. But it's the nails you notice. They sparkle with gold glitter as if they were groomed by a teenage manicurist bonkers for disco balls and Las Vegas. Williams had worn all that razzle-dazzle in the Wimbledon finals, along with her rather demure tennis whites.

Fans of Williams's blog might recall that the tennis star is mad for manicures. So much so that she's in training to become a certified nail technician in Florida . . . should this tennis business start to wear thin. She bought a Hello Kitty backpack to hold her school supplies.

Williams might have slimmed her figure, cut her hair and changed her clothes. But her nails offer reassurance that her personality -- with all its surprising juxtapositions -- remains intact.

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