Though you might not believe it by the outfits today, cheerleading uniforms started out very conservatively. At the turn of the twentieth century the majority of cheerleaders were male, and they did not wear uniforms but just participated wearing street clothes. Women did join the ranks of cheerleaders, and as they did the cheerleading uniforms they wore were appropriate for the day. There is a postcard from Cornell University, printed in 1906, that shows a female cheerleader carrying a school banner, wearing a very conservative outfit in school colors – a long sleeved dress with a high neckline and long, flowing skirt.
In the beginning stages of cheerleading, uniforms often consisted of a sweater (usually a cardigan) and the school letters on the front. Sometimes a turtleneck shirt would be layered under the cardigan sweater for additional warmth for cheerleaders outdoors. A megaphone (a device used to amplify the voices of the cheerleaders) would often accompany the cheerleading uniforms and they would have the school letters on them as well. Pom poms, another popular cheerleading accessory, started to appear as a part of the cheerleading uniform in the 1930’s. The original pom poms were made of paper – Fred Gastoff invented vinyl pom poms in 1965.
In the beginning stages of cheerleading, the male cheerleaders would wear trousers while the women would wear ankle length wool skirts. In the 1950’s the lengths of the skirts began to get shorter but were still on the conservative side. Saddle shoes were the footwear of choice for female cheerleaders. Male cheerleaders would often wear flat, canvas sneakers.
During the 1960’s the length of skirts changed – the below the knee length skirts worn as the uniform for female cheerleaders gave way to shorter, pleated skirts. Cotton began being used as the fabric of choice for cheerleading uniform skirts, and the use of cotton made the skirts lighter and made for easier movement. Cardigan sweaters were replaced by crew neck sweaters that were often short sleeved. You would usually find the school letters on the sweaters but some squads would incorporate the name of the cheerleader on the cheerleading uniform sweaters as well.
As time progressed, cheerleading became more organized and the routines became more complicated. Cheerleaders needed to have uniforms that allowed for more freedom of movement. During the 1970’s most cheerleading squads began to wear athletic sneakers instead of the old fashioned saddle shoes. Instead of sweaters with the school letters, some cheerleading uniforms were sweaters with stripes in the school colors, while some squads moved to wearing vests instead of sweaters. The 1970’s also was the time when the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders became a part of popular culture, with their skimpy, form fitting cheerleading uniforms consisting of boots, white hot pants (short-shorts) and long sleeved blue button up shirts that revealed their waists.
During the 1980’s the necklines of cheerleading uniform sweaters were more often than not v-neck lines instead of the traditional crew necklines. During the 1990’s the length of the skirts became even shorter to provide better freedom of movement for the jumps, lifts and tumbling skills that are a part of cheerleading routines. To determine how short is too short when it comes to the length of skirts in cheerleading uniforms, most squads followed a rule that the cheerleading skirt would end no shorter than the fingertips when the arms were held at the cheerleader’s side. Turtlenecks were often left out as a part of the cheerleading uniform.
The materials used in today’s cheerleading uniforms are polyester, or a combination of polyester and spandex. The cheerleading uniform top is form fitting, but depending on the squad it could be short sleeved, long sleeved or even sleeveless. The National Federation of High Schools have a rule that the tops worn by cheerleaders must cover their midriffs when their arms are resting at their sides, a change from the tops of the 1970’s and 1980’s that would show off the abdomen of the cheerleader. Cutouts on the chest, shoulders, back or arms are allowed in today’s cheerleading uniforms. Skirts are about 12 to 14 inches in length, but most women wear briefs in a school color under the skirt for modesty. Some cheerleaders refer to these briefs as lollies or spankies.
Even though the styles of cheerleading uniforms have changed through the years, there is one thing that has remained constant – a cheerleader will be decked out in his or her school colors to show spirit and loyalty while leading a crowd in cheers.