challengers movie fashion
Photography courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures

In Challengers, There’s Deeper Meaning Behind the Characters’ Shared Clothing

This trio just can't stay away from one another.

Warning: Minor spoilers for Challengers ahead.

Challengers, the new film from director Luca Guadagnino, is a tennis movie in every sense of the word. Except that, it’s really not. Despite the fact that the film centres around the sport, highlighting the grunts, backhands and — most importantly — the sweat, as Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) battle it out on the court, the sport is really only an avenue through which the three characters express their love for one another.

Another way? Through the clothes each one chooses to wear — and, ultimately, share. The film uses shared clothing, mainly between Zendaya and the two men, as a visual way to convey their interconnectedness to one another, even when they’re not all physically together. (Plus, sharing clothes with a lover is categorically hot.)

It should come as no surprise that fashion plays an important role in Challengers. With Loewe creative director Jonathan Anderson designing the costumes for the movie (and fashion girlie Zendaya on board), exactly what each character wore was always going to be integral to the story. And it is, with Anderson using brands to convey important messaging about where each character is throughout the timeline of their lives.

As adults, Tashi dons luxe cashmere and Chanel, a nod to her need for, and obtainment of, power. And Art — the calm, buttoned-up ice to Patrick’s fire — is always in stark, crisp Uniqlo whites. He’s inoffensive, and some may say a blank slate for Tashi to project her dreams onto, both on and off the court. While these identifiable brands are important to the individual characters, it’s actually two outwardly normal T-shirts — and their place in two pivotal scenes — that speak to the heart of the film and the complicated dynamic between the trio. Essentially, they can’t exist without one another.

We see this early on in the film. While attending Stanford University together, Art and Tashi sit down for a post-tennis practice lunch in the dining hall. Innocuous at first, their convo quickly turns from tennis to love, or lack thereof, with Art informing Tashi that his longtime BFF and her current boyfriend Patrick isn’t in love with her. Tashi tells him off as only Zendaya can; shutting Art down with a succinct and curt AF: “What makes you think I want someone to be in love with me?” Oof. It’s an intense scene in an already fraught film, a verbal sparring match between lovesick Art and guarded Tashi about, ultimately, their feelings for each other. He wants Tashi and Tashi doesn’t want him, or arguably anyone else.

Photography courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures

While Art is effectively trying to push Patrick out of the picture, the pro tennis player is still physically represented in the scene. Throughout their conversation, Tashi dons a now-iconic grey T-shirt emblazoned with “I Told Ya” on it. Whether or not the shirt (available on Loewe) is originally Patrick’s or Tashi’s is up for debate, but as viewers see in later scenes, it becomes synonymous with the former, who picks it up off of Tashi’s dorm room floor amidst their fight and ultimate breakup. Patrick, despite being away on tour, is still an ever-present entity in Art and Tashi’s dynamic.

It’s telling then, that years later in Atlanta, the trio would bump into each other while Patrick is wearing the “I Told Ya” t-shirt; the literal and figurative embodiment of Tashi and Art’s problems and desires combining into one.

More than a decade after first meeting and now in 2019, we see this dynamic reversed when, the night before the big Challengers final match, a 31-year-old Tashi meets up with Patrick to ask him to throw the game in order to boost Art’s confidence. Having come straight from an intimate power struggle with her now-husband Art, Tashi has thrown an oversized plain white men’s T-shirt over her lace nightgown, similar to (or perhaps one of?) the basic tees that Art wears off the court.

Regardless of whether or not it is actually one of her husband’s T-shirts, like Patrick’s “I Told Ya” shirt, it has become synonymous with the tennis player throughout the film, bringing even more depth and meaning to her impassioned conversation and eventual hook-up with Patrick.

Not only does the sharing of clothing, and Tashi donning the pieces in pivotal moments, signal her own internal division — always thinking about one man while in conversation or a relationship with the other — but the interconnectedness of the three. Even in these intimate moments one-on-one with Tashi, both Patrick and Art are never fully out of frame, brought into the scene — and the love triangle — via a piece of clothing.

Photography courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures

In these heightened, sometimes erotic moments, even when they’re not all physically together, the trio are still inextricably linked. And that’s the way it has to be for them to function and be truly happy, both on and off the tennis court. It’s a realization the characters themselves have in the final moments of the film when Art and Patrick finally embrace; the realization that they work best when they’re together.

It may be new info to Tashi et al, but this reality — like Patrick and Art’s love for each other — was there all along, all in the form of a T-shirt.

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