The History of Cheerleading Apparel

Over the years, cheerleading has transitioned from sideline yelling to a competitive sport involving stunts and tumbles, and from an all-male activity to predominantly female-led.

Cheerleading apparel has also transitioned from stuffy, bulky sweaters to stylish crop tops and cheerleading skirts for the team. Clothing associated with the sport has had to adapt to cater to the demands of the modern cheerleaders.

Looking back over the past of cheerleading uniforms, it’s clear to see drastic and distinct changes in how the costumes were frequently reshaped and reinvented to reflect changing trends in fashion.

Also, the transition shows an apparent attempt at adopting the American Culture and athleticism that’s now required in this growing sport. Here is a look at the history of cheerleading apparel.

The History of Cheerleading Uniforms

Before delving into the history of the cheerleading uniform, it’s good to start by looking into the history of the sports activity itself. Since conception, cheerleading has always brought participants pride and honor as they represent their team or school. In fact, cheerleading roots are closely related to American football’s.

In 1869, during the first intercollegiate game between Rutgers University and Princeton University, Thomas Peebles (a Princeton graduate) led his team in football and fight songs. In 1898, University of Minnesota was losing terribly. Johnny Campbell, a medical student at U of M, reenergized the team and crowd with the first organized cheer – making him the first cheerleader.

It was not until 1923 that women got into cheering, again, at University of Minnesota. It’s during this period too that acrobatics and tumbling were added to cheerleading routines, with University of Oregon cheerleaders becoming the first team to use flashcards.

While women could join the team by the 1920’s, it wasn’t until the 1940’s when they joined in large numbers as many college-age men went off to fight in the World War II.

Cheerleading Apparel in the 1900s

Through the early 1900s, cheerleading uniforms were a representation of the school and fashion sense at the time. Cheerleaders typically had large sweaters with the school name at the front and pants for men. High school cheerleading uniforms had the letters H and S in small letters below the school name.

In warmer weather, cheerleaders had polo shirts in place of the bulky sweaters. Because of the various athletic and rhythmic movements, the sweaters placed cheerleaders at a disadvantage. Women typically wore long pleated skirts darker in color than the sweater, matching with flat saddles shoes and dress socks.

For several decades, the general styling of the cheerleading outfit remained unchanged due to a limited choice in clothing fabrics and fashion trends. In contrast, today’s costumes are a reflection of the athleticism required in the sport, as it keeps up the glam.

1948 The Year that Was a Game Changer

Lawrence Russell Herkimer, a former Southern Methodist University cheerleader, started the very first cheer camp in 1948, which revolutionized cheerleading apparel.

Cheer camps were the best places for aspiring cheerleader to learn new skills and perfect their moves and stunts, making the sport more complex. Given this, the uniforms worn at the camps had to be comfortable and functional as well.

The first camp was the foundation of cheerleading clothing innovation and ideas to make apparel suitable for a wide range of motions. The long khaki-like pants, sweaters, and collared shirts of the previous decades were the first to be overhauled with Soffe knit shorts and lightweight tank tops.

With cheerleading becoming even more popular, outfits that showed the team spirit, unity and support were required.

At first, shorts and tanks were availed in a few more colors, and the design and color options available eventually grew with bigger cheerleading squads. Teams finally started customizing their uniforms through embroidering and mascot printing.

These cheerleading camps became even more popular as they also organized annual squads’ events where companies now showcase their latest accessories, outfits and practice wear.

1982 Another Cheerleading Outfit Milestone

As cheerleading activity grew, the television industry started showing interest in televising various cheerleading events. Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) did the first cheerleading competition television broadcasting in 1982.

cheerleaders competing

The broadcast popularized cheerleading as a sport. From its first time on television, the cheerleading world realized drastic changes in apparel styling.

Cheerleaders came up with bright colored apparel to stand out from the rest, promoting team personality and creativity. Also, more people became interested in the sport’s activities, and ultimately, the apparel industry. Today, cheerleading is a leading sport to watch.

For More than Just Cheerleaders

Cheerleading outfits are no longer a preserve for cheerleaders only as parents, coaches and sports fans are interested in cheerleading apparel in support of their teams. Communities, relatives and families also want to show that they support their favorite teams.

Cheerleading outfits now include sweaters, t-shirts, polo shirts, bags and just about anything the industry can bring to the market. Furthermore, fans and cheerleaders are building collections to show support to their favorite cheerleading all-star squads and celebrities.

In fact, cheerleading apparel has shown a great deal of improvement regarding fitting, functionality, design, accessibility, and design.


Looking back at the long history of cheerleading apparel, the outfits you see today are miles ahead of what was there at the beginning. Cheerleading competitions are helping to spur the popularity of cheerleading as a sport, meaning that the future is bright as modern clothing fabrics coincide with modern sporting and fashion trends.

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