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In 1974, Jeff Webb gave cheerleading a makeover. Before he came along, cheerleaders of the era performed in modest, below-the-knee poodle skirts, saddle shoes with thick socks, and bulky, long-sleeved sweaters emblazoned with a large block letter representing the name of their school. But when Webb founded the UCA — Universal Cheerleading Association — that year, to train college and high school cheerleaders, he decided to give the by then female-dominated sport a modern look. To do that, he brought in Kraig Tallman.
Tallman wasn’t the first person to overhaul cheer to make it more accessible — in fact, when cheer squads were introduced to support school sports teams in the 1880s, they were called “pep clubs,” and they were only open to men. Women weren’t allowed to cheer until 1923, a fairly significant change, and they didn’t dominate cheerleading until the 1940s, while their male teammates were serving in World War II. But Tallman, who passed away in 1999, introduced America to the geometric patterns — chevrons, zigzags, and stripes — cheer costumes are now known for.
In 1994, Tallman told the LA Times that he wanted to create "more of a streamlined, fitted look. It's not so bulky or oversized. It's more like fashion.” He limited his color palette to the 18 so-called athletic colors used by high school and college sports teams, in order to help cheer squads look more like traditional athletes. Thanks to Tallman, cheerleaders got body-hugging shell tops, pleated skirts, and color blocking.
Killman’s changes to the cheer uniform came at a time of seismic shifts in America’s social and cultural norms: In the ’60s and ’70s, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing. Women were entering the workforce in record numbers. It became common for women to wear unisex clothing like jeans, and Tallman’s vision for how he wanted the world to see cheerleaders reflected the growing acceptance of female autonomy, agency, and ability.
He and Webb hoped that cheer teams would start to focus on strength, gymnastics, and competition. The sociologist William Keenan wrote that “Clothes are society’s way of showing where we belong in the order of things, our role and position in the social pageantry.” Webb in particular wanted to change the role of cheerleaders not only in sports, but how they were viewed in society at large — as peppy, shallow, goody-two-shoes (think Sandy in Grease) who only existed to uplift others to athletes in their own right — and changing their uniforms was a necessary part of that mission.
“You can’t tumble in a big bulky sweater,” Tammy Gagne, national cheer commissioner at American Youth Football and Cheer, tells me. “Wearing saddle shoes with heels, you can’t be jumping and tumbling.”
Gagne began coaching cheer in 1998. She’s had a front-row seat to watch the changing face of cheerleading. When she started coaching, the complex pyramids, gymnastic sequences, and acrobatics now common to the sport — otherwise known as stunting — still weren’t prominent. She estimates that “the level we hit now happened eight years ago.” Competitive cheer has always included stunts like basic basket tosses and pyramids, but routines were much more dance-centric in the past, and at most required the ability to complete a backflip.
“The cheer uniform does evolve with the trends in fashion,” she says. “[Skirts] got shorter in the ’80s and the ’90s, but even in the ’80s, you got up and stood on [your partner’s] thigh so you didn’t need a flexible material.” Gagne is referring a simple stunt called the Thigh Stand, in which one cheerleader kneels on the ground while the other stands on his or her thigh —it doesn’t require any flexibility or tumbling skills to pull off.
Since the early 2000s, cheer has expanded rapidly. The sport now encompasses All-Star cheer — the equivalent of a club sport that operates out of a private gym and is not associated with a school. But Gagne tells me that even at the local high school level teams are becoming more competitive, requiring that new members be able to perform at least a back handspring — most serious cheerleaders have a layout and a standing full, and must be able to string them together in tumbling “passes.”
High-level cheerleaders need spandex uniforms that can accommodate the growing range of stunting and tumbling skills they have to learn. Although it still shares the same general elements of sideline cheer, like the toe touch jump and the pyramid configuration, at the All-Star level, the choreography is elaborate and extremely difficult. Stunt groups, usually made up of four girls — three bases (or sometimes one very strong man), and the flyer, who is thrown in the air — must master the scorpion cradle, the bow and arrow, and the pike open double basket toss, to name just a few of their most complicated stunts.
The sport is now dominated by young women (although many gyms are integrating co-ed teams to their rosters), and has moved away from including traditional cheers in their routines, which were created to encourage the “real” athletes on basketball and football teams. They certainly don’t use pom-poms. All-Star cheerleaders aren’t on the sidelines. They have become the real athletes. And they need uniforms to match.
Cheer uniforms have long since left behind a style that emphasized modesty and virtuous service, perhaps even submission, to masculinity. As it became less risque for women to show skin, the skirts and tops got shorter and tighter, too.
As the new millennium began, Bring It On was released, and cheerleaders were still considered sex symbols. In pop culture (and pornography especially), they were slutty (but innocent), or popular, or mean girls, or some combination of both. Their position as skin-bearing hyper-feminine figures who existed to literally cheer on the accomplishments of men made them ripe for exploitation.
Now, uniform companies are adapting the current trends in cheer uniforms — an A-line instead of pleated skirt in particular — to suit the increasingly athletic nature of the sport.
“Style is now about function, and garments are manufactured in fabrics with technical properties. We are showing more streamlined styles, but some schools have shown a renewed interest in retro designs that speak to tradition, like cardigans and letter jackets,” says Bill Seely, executive vice president of training and education at Varsity, the umbrella company that now runs the UCA — and got ESPN to air its prestigious competitions.
Gagne agrees that current iteration of the uniform is all about function.
“The A-line skirt is really clean-looking, with the little slit in it that allows them to jump,” she says. “If they are good jumpers, their legs are coming up over their hips, so they need that flexibility. There aren’t pleats anymore. That hasn’t been the style for a long time.”
Younger generations of cheerleaders appreciate these changes, simply because it makes their job easier.
“Wearing skirts and shorts makes it easier to stunt, because you are constantly grabbing the flyer’s legs,” explains Marisa Karahuta, who has been cheering since she was 6, including under Gagne at American Youth Cheer. “If we were wearing pants, we wouldn't be able to get a good grip on the flyer's legs and would get in the way of jumps and tumbling.”
All-Star uniforms are also optimized for their rigorous competition standards, but they haven’t lost their flair for drama. In fact, the hyper-feminine image of the cheerleader has been repurposed to convey an attitude of power and confidence. Take the uniforms worn by the Top Gun All Stars. The sheer long-sleeved tops are covered in rhinestones. The sparkly (to put it very lightly) crop tops worn by the Cheer Athletics Cheetahs convey the same message. And don’t forget the big hair, bows, and red lipstick commonplace at almost every All-Star competition.
“There definitely is a tradition of teasing hair and makeup,” 16-year-old Kennedy Thames, who has cheered with the Rock Star Beatles for three years, says. “But when I put on my uniform, I feel so confident and get an adrenaline rush being in it. It's an empowering feeling.”
The cheer bow is a crucial part of the uniform these days, in both All Star and sideline.
“Every cheer team has a cheer bow, and a lot of money is spent on that bow. It finishes off the uniform. They collect them — they wear them to school, to practice, and they have a game bow. If they go nationals, they’ll buy another bow,” Gagne explains.
The bow is just one element of performance that separates it from other sports. For All-Star athletes especially, their presentation on the mat is essential for a win. They’re putting on a show.
“There will always be a glitz and glamour diva association [with cheer]. The athleticism is hidden behind that costume,” Kenny Sampson, an All-Star coach and host of Cheer Talk Radio, tells me. “It’s all about crowd appeal. The big hair, the big ponytails — it’s all meant to grab people’s attention. It’s supposed to be a spectacle.”
The pressure to look the part is sometimes great. Karahuta says when she was younger, she wore “cheer curls,” a wig that can be placed on top of the ponytail, to make her look as though she had ringlets. Now she mostly sticks to the current trend: a straight, teased-up ponytail.
“In my cheerleading uniform I felt fierce,” says Karahuta. “We looked like a team that put all of our hard work on the mat for two minutes and 30 seconds. We looked like a team that came to win.”