Sarah Pavan was terrified.
There she stood, in the bowels of the Footprint Center, moments away from preparing to compete in the AVP Phoenix Gold Series Championships. She’d be playing with a new partner in Zana Muno, in a new format, in an arena the size of which she had never before played.
And she was going to do so in a tennis skirt.
A tennis skirt?
The 6-foot-5 Canadian who had thrice been named the best blocker in the world? The 36-year-old known for dominance at the net, icy staredowns and a mostly stoic demeanor?
In a tennis skirt?
“I think it’s fair to say that I’m the last person people ever thought would do that. I’m the last person who thought I’d do that,” Pavan said with a laugh. “If I’m being completely honest, the whole reason I even entertained the thought of it was because I saw how happy it made Zana. I saw how excited she was at the prospect and I couldn’t say no to that, you know what I mean? She was so excited, and at the very least, I wanted to make her happy.”
So she indulged Muno, her 26-year-old partner with such a zeal for outfits that, even when attending to her chickens on her ranch in Santa Maria, with no other souls within a 10-minute drive, nobody watching on any livestream, no content producers there to shoot photos or take video, Muno “goes for the chic farmer,” she said of her outfits. “That’s the goal. Dirty but also chic. Functional, because we have to shovel poop, but look good doing it! That’s the goal.”
When the two hit the Lululemon outlet in Phoenix, Pavan didn’t expect to actually buy anything. She’d simply try on a few outfits and tell Muno that sure, she gave it a go, but it just wasn’t right. Then Muno would wear any one of her dozens of flashy — but functional! — outfits, and Pavan would don the tried and true sports bikini. But when Pavan walked out of the changing room, clad in her pink tennis skirt and white top, and she saw the thousand-watt smile on Muno’s face, “the pure joy,” as Pavan described it, “I said ‘Ok, I need to commit.’ So I did.”
There was still one issue: Wearing it in public.
“First of all, I’m trying to get over the embarrassment of walking out and people saying ‘Sarah is in a skirt, oh my God, what is happening?’ I had to get over that,” Pavan said of wearing the tennis skirt in Phoenix. “A couple people right off the bat were like ‘Oh my God I love this!’ And I thought I could do this. Step one was actually being seen in public.”
Step two? Playing in something most wouldn’t expect to be the least bit functional, particularly on sand. But when Pavan began moving around, diving, blocking, swinging, lunging, going through all of the unusual positions typical of a beach volleyball player throughout a match, a surprising thought occurred to her: She hadn’t fussed with her outfit a single time. Didn’t pick a single wedgie. Didn’t adjust her top. She was just…playing volleyball…and looking quite good doing it.
“It actually is comfortable. I don’t know if you notice, but girls pick their wedgies so much when they’re wearing bikinis. It’s literally every other play,” Pavan said. “I didn’t even think about it at all, because the skirt has spandex underneath, so nothing moved. I wasn’t paying attention to my clothes at all. It was just, I didn’t think about it. I didn’t have to fix anything ever. It was very low maintenance even though it doesn’t look low maintenance. Honestly it was the most comfortable thing ever, and I was like ‘How did I not buy into this?’ I’m a convert, let me tell you.”
She is far from the only convert this season on the AVP to begin branching out in terms of what they wore on the beach. And it is no coincidence that it was with Muno that Pavan was introduced to the wonders of competing in something other than the bikini, a uniform which comes under intense scrutiny every Olympic Games.
No player on the AVP got more creative with their gameday outfits than Muno, who was voted by her peers as having the best fashion. It is not difficult to see why. Each match, it was as much a discussion as to what Muno might wear as it was to how she and Brandie Wilkerson, or Lauren Fendrick, or Pavan might match up with the opposing team.
“I don’t like to be boring. Nobody likes boring,” said Muno, who is definitively, unequivocally, unmistakably not boring. “I’ve loved fashion and clothes my whole life. I’ve just loved that. Now that I can bring one of my others loves — my love of volleyball — why wouldn’t I?
“I did ramp it up [this year]. I really did. Part of it is a rebellion, I guess. I think it’s just a way for me to have fun. Some people listen to music but music doesn’t really do it for me. Putting on a good outfit, that puts the pep in my step and just a little extra good moment to go play on.”
If that might seem to be a distraction, it wasn’t: Muno more than doubled her prize money in a single season and twice finished third, including at the Manhattan Beach Open. In fact, Muno believes that picking out outfits is a healthy, perhaps much needed, form of team bonding, something to relieve the stress and pressures of performing.
“Instead of sitting around scouting and overthinking everything, we went and had such a fun day at the mall,” Muno said of the Phoenix Championships with Pavan. “It sounds silly but it was a way for us both to escape and it really worked. We had such a fun day and it translated into fun play. It was so fun. I learned so much about her. It was just a good time, it wasn’t serious, it was so fun.”
Functional, as she might say, in a metaphorical sense. But also in a financial one as well. For her entire life, Delaney Mewhirter (then Knudsen) has worn one-piece bathing suits. Not that it was necessarily her choice at first. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, there is an added emphasis on modesty, or, as Mewhirter says, “an environment where it was very encouraged to leave a little to the imagination. I love saying it that way. I wasn’t always on board. It wasn’t cool, it wasn’t what everyone else is doing and as a young woman you always want to do what everyone else is doing.”
In 2017, however, Cami Manwill, another member of the church, called. Would she want to play an AVP in Austin? And would she want to wear matching one-pieces? Weeks later, Mewhirter — then Knudsen — received a call from DiG Magazine, who wanted to feature her in a fashion centerpiece, in which her picture would take up two full pages.
“That was what opened the door, and what really got the ball rolling was when I got the opportunity to put myself out there as a girl who wears one-pieces,” Mewhirter said. And, indeed, she has become exactly that.
“Delaney kills the one pieces,” Pavan said. “I’ve loved her onesie collection forever.”
Not all Mormon athletes wear one-pieces, of course, but Mewhirter (who, full disclosure, is my wife) has made it something of a signature of hers. It earned her an apparel sponsorship with Jolyn, who outfitted her in many of her various one-pieces. And it’s allowed her to make the precise type of impact she always sought in the sport.
“I love getting messages from moms saying their daughters want to buy one-pieces because their daughters see me playing in them,” Mewhirter said. “That’s huge for me because I remember fighting with my mom because she wanted me to dress more conservatively when I was young and I didn’t want to and now I see the value in it and I’m glad I get to be an example to other young girls.”
And besides, all that extra material she wears? Just additional space for sponsors to place their logos. She says that kiddingly — sort of — but there is something undeniably attractive to apparel companies and sponsors who see unique looks and styles and want to be a part of it.
“There’s such a lack of personality sometimes so if you’re not going to show your personality in how you act on the court at least bring it with what you wear,” Pavan said.
And it isn’t just Muno, or Wilkerson, or Mewhirter, who have begun expressing themselves via their outfits. Betsi Flint and Kelly Cheng wore a variety of styles of tops, as did Molly Turner.
“You saw the one-strap make an appearance,” Pavan said. “Very risky, I applaud them for that. I’d be fixing that every play.”
Sarah Schermerhorn and Corinne Quiggle frequently turned to crop tops, which has become something of a signature look.
“I didn’t really realize it’s my thing but I guess it’s my thing,” Schermerhorn said. “I was in North Carolina, and some of the girls are wearing crop tops now. They watch you and follow you. I remember when I was first looking for crop tops, it was kind of hard to find them. Trends are just changing a little bit. I’m not mad about it.”
Carly Skjodt took up the style long adopted by Brooke Sweat, rocking old school, oversized T-shirts. Julia Scoles, sponsored by the Free People Movement, became an early adopter of the tennis skirt.
“I feel like each tournament someone was wearing something different or more skirts were added or different colors, different cuts, differently style of shorts,” Scoles said. “It was fun to see everyone in their own unique way of expressing themselves in fashion. That was fun.”
Muno sees an even bigger picture amidst all of this. Virtually every major sport, and its athletes, has a connection with fashion. Cameramen track NFL players walking into stadiums in sometimes sharp, sometimes outrageous, sometimes laughable suits and outfits. Sunglasses into a night game? Sure. Cowboy hats? Why not? NBA players will do the same in pregame walk-ups and post-game press conferences. Before the World Cup, much of the craze was focused on the various kits each country might wear.
“Fashion is such a big industry and popular culture and all that, people can get associated with bigger brands and they’re getting posted on those channels,” Muno said. “I’m here for it. I feel like it’s caught on and it’s awesome. We’re embracing our femininity and we’re more than just athletes and we can embrace that. It can change the sport, too. If you look at all the other sports — tennis, basketball, football — the pre-game fits are such a thing, and it connects you to popular culture. People might not know football but they know who Tom Brady is because he wore whatever at the Met Gala. Fashion is definitely a way to grow the sport so that part is really exciting to me.
“It’s such a thing in all sports, and it is a way to grow the image of yourself and connect to other things and go beyond just your sport. The part that I have a problem with are the people who sexualize it, like ‘How can you wear this?’ Or ‘Are you making it about fashion or your sport?’ For me, every sport does this. Looking at the U.S. Open, the outfits they’re wearing, not only are they revealing or edgy, they’re also designer. That argument could go to any sport. I think people are extending it to what makes them feel more comfortable: More coverage on top, shorts on the bottom, and making it fun while they’re doing it. It’s cool. They just care that much about being unique and expressing something.”
Muno, like most every other player at the moment, is enjoying her time off the sand, resting from a long and winding 2022 season. In the meantime? She’s already preparing her closet for 2023.
“Definitely rethinking what I want to do for next year in terms of the fashion side of things,” she said.
Cute — but functional.
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