From Male Squads to Miniskirts

By: Madison Jenos

Tucked away in the Dedman Athletic Center are two large boxes containing decades of mementos of SMU school spirit. The boxes house a collection of past cheerleading uniforms. There is the crisp white uniform worn by the all-male squads in 1916. A poodle skirt from the 1950s. A mini skirt from the 1960s.

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This is one of the old uniforms found in the bins in the Deadman Athletic Center.

In Fondren Library another glimpse of cheerleading history can be found in a collection of photos dating back to the 1916 SMU yearbook, when cheerleaders were still called ‘Yell Leaders’. The photos show each year’s squad members in action. Early photos show individuals; photos after the 1930’s are almost exclusively group shots.

These photos are from the 1923-1924 Rotunda. Photo credit: Rotunda

Taken together, the photos and old uniforms provide a window into the fashion of the times, and an evolution in fabrics, colors, skirt lengths, shoes, hairstyles and even gender. But cheerleaders say it’s not the fashion that defines their work, it’s the spirit.

“Having people cheering on the sidelines while you compete definitely helps you play better,” said SMU Spirit Squad Member Blair Welch, a senior.

Early Years

The first SMU cheerleading squad was made up of men, and they wore white. That was in 1916. Until the mid-1950’s, when women joined the squad, a handful of men were elected by the students each year to cheer for the Mustangs. The men’s uniforms were very simple and reflected their serious duty to foster support among students for the athletes.

This photo is from the Daily Campus Volume 1 Number 4.

Lawrence Herkimer, who is considered the founder of modern cheerleading was an SMU cheerleader from 1943 to 1948. He is known for originating the pom-pom, spirit stick and the ‘Herkie’ jump. He also founded the National Cheerleading Association (NCA).

Tiffany Fettinger is the current SMU Spirit Coordinator, as well as an SMU cheerleading alumna from 2005 to 2010.
“SMU still has the flagship NCA camp here every summer,” said Fettinger.


Cheerleading opened up to women across the country in the late ‘40’s because of men’s absence from these positions during World War II. This movement finally made its way to SMU in 1954, when women joined the squad.

Women’s uniforms in the early years consisted of sweaters, poodle skirts, thick socks, and saddle shoes. SMU’s first co-ed squads were made up of four sets of male and female partners, so for a long time there were only four women’s uniforms in circulation.

Uniforms changed most drastically when skirts were shortened in the 1960’s. The change in skirt length coincided with the women’s liberation movement, reflecting the shift in American social and cultural norms.

Kraig Tallman revolutionized the look of cheerleaders everywhere when he was appointed Varsity’s first full-time fashion designer in the ‘70’s. Varsity is the industry’s main uniform supplier.

Tallman introduced new uniform patterns that included geometric shapes, an athletic color wheel consisting of 18 colors that colleges still use today, and a more tailored uniform.

Nina Fifield, a sophomore at SMU, poured over some of the old SMU cheerleading photos recently and said she likes the brightly colored uniforms from the 1970’s the most. The skirts are short and pleated, with a peek-a-boo color hidden in the pleat, and are accompanied by a pullover sweater.

“It kind of makes me want to be a cheerleader,” Fifield said.

21st Century style

While SMU cheer squads have been co-ed since the 1950s, the current SMU squad is made up entirely of women because no men tried out.

“We only have girls this year, and that’s a first,” said Fettinger, who chooses the squad during tryouts.

Since the introduction of All-Star cheerleading in the early 2000’s, the sport has become more athletic. Jumps, flips, stunts and dancing have become the norm. Today, cheerleaders’ uniforms are spandex, and include A-line miniskirts, crop tops, rhinestones, white athletic shoes and bows.

The greatest change Fettinger said she’s seen in the cheerleading image over the years has been in women’s hairstyles. Traditionally, cheerleaders wore their hair half up and tied with a bow. Today, because of the increased athleticism of the sport, women wear slicked back, high ponytails.

Fettinger also recalls that in 2005, when she was on the squad, the SMU cheerleaders only had one uniform. Now, they have eight.

“Uniforms were very traditional. No rhinestones. We used spray-on glitter. Now it’s like how many rhinestones can we fit on one uniform?” said Fettinger.

This is one of SMU's older cheer uniforms.

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