Dive in to the hypnotising past of cheerleading with our collection of amazing vintage photos. You’re sure to be surprised about just how far the sport has come. Associated with young women who have endless bounds of energy, we were surprised to see that the whole thing has quite a complicated past.
At For What It’s Earth, we’re revealing the little-known scandals and unexpected turning points in the history of cheerleading. Not to mention, these perfectly-captured photos are something you won’t want to miss.
The (Cheer) Leading Stereotype
In the 70s, cheerleading was on a well-established route to becoming a popular girl at school. This decade, more than others before it, shaped the stereotype of a highschool or college cheerleader. The long blonde hair, big smile, and the miniskirt.
It was also the decade where makeup was being applied more heavily to the girls, as we can see above. This cheerleader is performing at a sports game in the ’70s, in a less garish uniform of white and black. And of course, she has pompoms in her hand to match their colors.
We love these photos because they show just how much cheerleaders outfits have changed over the years. Here we have two women of the Las Vegas Raiderettes, the cheerleading squad for the Las Vegas Raiders American football team. As we can see, they didn’t come to play!
Wearing barely more than a bikini swimsuit, these girls had to not only stand infront of thousands of football fans, but dance to an upbeat tempo too. And to make it all the more challenging, they’d have to do it through a great big smile.
They Had the Craziest Rules
The women who were cheering during the ’80s and ’90s have spoken out about the weird rules they had to abide by. They may have been forced to dress provocatively, but they were expected to act prude in their personal lives. Talk about leading a double life! Managers wanted to make the cheerleaders seem unattainable.
It was in the team’s financial interest to protect, as Vanity Fair put it, their “the particular brand of fantasy they were creating.” They also weren’t allowed to do a whole bunch of other ordinary things like chew gum, wear blue jeans, or drink in public. These days, these demands would be grounds for a lawsuit.
So Good It Looks Fake
This photo is such a mind-warp it hardly looks real. But we promise we didn’t edit this. Here we have some students taking part in their cheerleading practice out in the middle of the open road! Seeing as it looks fairly suburban where they are, it was probably less dangerous than it is today.
These girls are students of Norview Highschool in Norfolk, Virginia, putting on a performance for a Life Magazine article. Their school was just one of the schools in the south that was closed by state officials trying to block court integration orders. These students have some serious talent.
Cheerleaders Helped Boost Attendance
1972 also saw the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have an outfit revamp. Their new uniforms were a lot more skimpy and revealing than they had previously been, giving rise to the cheerleading stereotype we know today. And it was all part of Dallas Cowboys’ masterplan to attract a wider audience.
It was thought that the cheerleaders’ new outfits would boost people’s attendance at the live football games. New York choreographer Texie Waterman was also hired to create new routines for the girls that left behind the acrobatic routines of highschool. Texie focused more on dancing.
Romance on the Stadium Pitch
This amazing photo looks like the cheerleader version of the V-J Day kiss in Times Square circa 1945. Captured in 1956, we can see just how well-covered cheerleaders used to be, with skirts passed their knees and long-sleeved sweaters. But by the looks of it the cheerleaders got enough attention as it was.
In this photo, a player from the Ole Miss Rebels football team celebrates a victorious win at the 1956 Cotton Bowl. This footbball player would have been a student of the University of Mississippi, AKA “Ole Miss.” We don’t know about you, but we’re loving the retro style the cheerleaders wore back then.
Only Girls Allowed
This vintage snap from the ’70s shows the bold and beautiful Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders for the National Football League. In this decade their squad underwent a lot of changes. For one, they made it mandatory for all the cheerleaders to be female. And along with that, every member had to be attractive and athletic.
From 1972, they would only be accepting cheerleaders who were at least 18 years of age. This rule allowed them to change the appearance of the girls to something a little less highschool and a little more risqué. As we can see above, their outfits left little to the imagination.
A Strategic Move
Did you know that cheerleaders were used as a “distraction” from the game when your favorite team was losing? Chicago Bears football team owner George Halas AKA “Papa Bear” even admitted it. He claimed that it was in their best interest to have “dancing girls” on the field so fans were focused on them, not the losing game.
Cathy Core, the Bears’ cheerleading coach, recalled how she would put the girls in a tiny white leotard that featured a lace-up front. That was to draw attention to “the type of body we wanted to see in that particular costume: girls who could be a little more endowed on the top.”
Hollywood’s Take of Pom-Pom Girls
This image of Jane Fonda in a film is a perfect example of how drastically the cheerleader image was changing. Jane played college cheerleader June Ryder in the 1960 romantic comedy, Tall Story. It followed the story of June, a young student who becomes a cheerleader to attract one of the college athletes.
It was only just 1960, but the miniskirt had already made its way into cheerleader outfits. The whole ensemble was both incredibly short and tight-fitting, which set the tone for how cheerleaders would be seen. These girls were being seen as attractive and alluring women.
Pompoms and Patriotism
It doesn’t get much more patriotic than this! This firecracker poses with her pompoms in the 1950s, wearing a blue, red, and white dress in celebration of the United States. And it was a seriously short skirt for the day, as most women wouldn’t dare wear something shorter than knee-length.
It wasn’t even popular for cheerleaders to wear such short skirts and dresses, despite the performance advantage it offered. So this particular young lady was breaking all sorts of rules. Either way, we think she pulls the look off perfectly.
The Disciplinarian Who Pushed the Girls To Their Limits
Check out this amazing photo from the sixties that was captured at just the right moment. Pictured are a cheerleading squad training under Bill Horan, the infamous cheerleading coach. He was a WW2 veteran and a former paratrooper before he became a coach! He ran the American Cheerleaders Association.
Bill’s strict training is a thing of legend. He was said to treat the girls like soldiers in a marine boot camp, keeping them under strict control and leading with an iron fist. Once in an interview he said: “We keep the poor kids off balance. They don’t know whether to kiss me or give me a hand grenade and run.”
Changing With the Times
Pictured in 1988, this Miami Dolphins cheerleader watches on in excitement as her team plays against the San Diego Chargers at Joe Robbie Stadium in Florida. The Miami Dolphins ended up winning. As we can see, a lot changed in the ’80s for cheearleading. But it was more than just the outfits.
The ’80s saw the start of modern cheerleading, AKA advanced-level stunt sequences and anything from gymnastics to dance routines. And suddenly, people were creating independent cheer teams not linked to any school or college. The United States All-Star Federation (USASF) was created and from 1983, the National High School Cheerleading Competition was airing on TV.
The Woman Who Changed the game
Suzanne Mitchell is a name who greatly influenced the cheerleader image during the late ’70s and ’80s. She was a former public relations person who came from New York, and was given the task of managing the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
Under her leadership, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders went from seven teammates to 14. She fitted them out with new and far more revealing outfits, and hired a choreographer. Not to mention, she made the team pose for a pinup poster. And the story of why she came about has very interesting origins.
A New Age of Sports Marketing
While working as an administrative assistant to the Dallas Cowboys’ president Tex Schramm, Suzanne Mitchell was there when the team office became inundated with messages after a cheerleader winked at a TV camera. Tex soon realized the potential cheerleading had.
The infamous 1976 Super Bowl wink made the Dallas Cowboys realize how to bring themselves more exposure. So, Suzanne was given her new role that would come to be seen, as The New York Times put it, a “pop culture phenomenon.” It was definitely a historical turning point.
Behind the Cheer
But life wasn’t all that glamorous as a professional cheerleader for The Dallas Cowboys. Debbie Kepley, one of Dallas’s girls between 1976 and 1978, revealed in later years what it was like as one of the “lucky” ones. “They own you… Even though they wanted you to be a representative of the Cowboys, you were still just an accessory,” she explained.
Debbie continued: “It’s like being a Miss America – you will do anything they say to be a part of all of the glitz, the glamour, the cameras, the excitement and hope. That’s where they take advantage of people.” The truth was, cheerleaders were earning next to nothing.
’90s Grunge Never Translated
This picture shows the San Francisco 49ers cheerleaders looking as radiant as ever in 1990. And the ’90s was no different to the eighties in terms of flashy and revealing outfits. Despite the 90’s being associated with simple silhouettes and neutral tones, cheerleaders’ uniforms were full of glam and glitz.
If anything, the outfits got even more sparkly than any decade before. The NFL encouraged the women to wear even more sequin and rhinestone decorations on the uniforms. Cheerleaders definitely took on a show-girl personality.
How Much Were They Paid?
It’s a thing of legend how little cheerleaders were paid throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Freelance photographer Bob Shaw, who was hired to take pictures of the Dallas Cowboy girls, remembers just how little they received. “Oh no,” he replied when asked if the cheerleaders got a decent cut. “I paid them more than anybody with nice catering. They didn’t get anything.”
These girls were the faces who drew in the big crowds, but they weren’t getting a fair share of the earnings. They would be paid around $100 a season if they were lucky, and that was before tax. A former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader once told a filmmaker: “We became million-dollar showgirls who made $15 a game.”
As Little as $10 a Game
The Chicago Honey Bear cheerleading squad were done particularly dirty, sometimes earning around $10 a game during the late ’70s. So it was up to them to earn money in other ways using their special status. Cheerleaders who were open to it would get offers of around $500 for a “private” evening with someone.
Whilst there were cheerleaders who took up these offers, other did not. Another way they could earn money was through holding car washes and bake sales. Unbelievably, in many cases these girls had to pay for their own uniforms and travel costs – even to away games.
They Weren’t Even Paid for the Super Bowl
It’s hard to believe, but the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad wasn’t even paid for its performance at Super Bowl XII. Not a single dime. The cheerleaders were given the excuse that they should only receive wages for home games.
Former Dallas cheerleader Debbie Kepley exclaimed: “These guys get these $10,000 rings and these big bonuses, and they couldn’t even give us our $14.12.” That was how much they took home for home games. She continues: “By that time a lot of us said, ‘This is s***.'”
A Turning Point
You’ll be happy to hear that at some point, cheerleaders started fighting for their right to be better paid. But unfortunately, it wouldn’t come for a while. Particularly after one event in 1978, the girls had felt like they had had enough. Debbie Kepley, one of Dallas’s girls at the time, recalls when the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII against the Broncos.
Immediately after the game, the cheerleaders were taken to a private plane where they were forced to sit for several hours. They were given no food or water, and it left a very bitter taste in the girls’ mouths. “I think it was because they didn’t want us back in Dallas celebrating, going to nightclubs,” Debbie reveals. “You still can’t convince me to this day that they didn’t keep us on that plane on purpose.”
Ridiculous Body Standards
Unfortunately, during the time when Suzanne Mitchell was managing the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, there were strict body standards that the girls had to maintain. She made the cheerleaders have regular weigh-ins, and one former teammate remembers just how damaging those could be.
“You would stand there and they would say, ‘O.K., I want you to turn around one inch at a time,'” the cheerleader Stephanie Scholz revealed. She continues: “I am five foot five. I weigh 105. And they still wanted me thinner.” Unfortunately, there weren’t enough rules put in place to stop such inappropriate comments.
Body-Shaming Was Normal
Unfortunately, Suzanne Mitchell went even further to keep the cheerleaders’ bodies in check. She created lists that she circulated to all the girls about what the “problem areas” were at that time. Dana Presley Killmer, a cheerleader who joined the Dallas Coywboy’s in 1980, remembers: “I was always on a list that said thighs.”
And what other lists were there to make the girls feel bad about their bodies? One list singled out girls who “needed” to lose weight from their mid-section, another list called out those who could stand to lose five pounds, and another list demanded some to lose 10. If they didn’t, they would be at risk of losing their coveted position. Unsurprisingly, eating disorders were common.
Cheerleaders and Players Were Separated
Every part of a cheerleader’s life was controlled under Suzanne Mitchell, including their love lives. Cheerleaders and players were actually banned from interacting with eachother, despite being on the same team! But it only worked so well, and in the end romances did bloom between both sides.
Ex-cheerleader Debbie Kepley, who was brought to the Dallas Cowboy team in 1976, recalled that “A lot of the guys were cheating on their wives with the cheerleaders.” If they were found out however, it was the poor cheerleader who took the blame.
Serious Double Standards
Cheerleaders were taking the blame for affairs even though there were two sides involved, and often the players were the ones with partners. At the Chicago Honey Bear cheerleading squad, coach Cathy Core remembers “we had to let one of the girls go because she was in a pretty serious relationship with one of the guys.”
And rather unfairly, the player involved got by scot-free. General manager of the Honey Bears team Jim Fink told Cathy at the time, “Do you think I’m gonna bench him?” Jim insisted, “He’s not gonna lose his job.” Now that’s what we call double standards.
It’s Still Not an Easy Job
You might be thinking, at least it’s not like the olden times and women are treated well! Unfortunately, it’s still not really the case for cheerleaders today. Not only is the personal appearance of these women still under intense scrutiny by their management, but also still their personal lives.
Bailey Davis is the former NFL cheerleader for the New Orleans Saintsations cheerleading squad, who was fired in 2018. She posted a photo on Instagram of herself in a lace bodysuit, after which she was dropped from the team. As she put it, they said the photo was “trashy and inappropriate. Meanwhile I’m posing for the team’s swimsuit calendar, and they’re making money off of it.”
These Girls Had Brains, Too
Before you jump to the assumption that cheerleaders don’t have much happening between the ears, bare in mind that not even Jeff Cohen – a photo editor of Playboy at the time – was that naive. He explained: “Here they had big hair… [They were] smiley young women parading up and down the sidelines. They knew exactly what was going on.”
Jeff continues: “They were well aware of what was necessary to get them the notoriety they were looking for – to drive ticket holders, drive eyeballs to TV, drive advertisers.” We can’t help but think that this was true about them. And they were brilliant at it, too.
Each Girl Had a “Look”
So how were cheerleaders chosen? Well you’ve probably guessed that looks were a big part of it. And former cheerleader Stephanie Scholz reveals what the higher-ups had in mind when casting. “Each girl’s ‘look’ was a part of the big scheme,” she wrote.
Stephanie continued: “There was the long-haired blonde, the girl with the ponytail, the pigtail girl, the tall brunette, the perky little brunette, the bouncy blonde, the sultry redhead.” Basically, it was all centered around different “male fantasies.” It obviously worked, as Stephanie recalls: “Men would be yelling down, Shake it, Stephanie! Shake it!”
It Was a Sisterhood Alliance
But dont worry, from many accounts it seems as though these unsung heroes had an amazing time during the golden age of cheerleading. A lot of these women developed close relationships with eachother outside of their work, having built together a feeling of sisterhood.
Dana Presley Killmer, the former Dallas cheerleader, asserted: “When people ask me if I would do it again, I always say, ‘Absolutely.'” And that’s even with all those regular weigh-ins! “It was one of the best experiences of my life.” In the end, she remembers all the good times she had.
Bring Out the Professionals
Professional cheerleading began in the ’50s. Until then, it was confined to a college activity. The cheerleaders were chosen based on two main factors – their appearance and their dancing ability. But you have to bear in mind that they were solely used to attract a male audience.
Even in the ’80s, several football teams didn’t have a cheerleading squad. By 1981 there were 17 squads, but New Orleans, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Denver, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and San Diego, still didn’t have their own cheerleaders.
The Great Cheerleading War of 1978
Out of all the cheerleading squads, the Dallas Cowboy’s were being the most provocative in terms of outfits and dances. It started what is now referred to as the “Great Cheerleading War of 1978,” in which other football cheerleading squads competed over how racy they could get.
An Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders assistant of the time admitted that “belly buttons, busts, and backsides” were all out as cheerleading teams vyed for attention. There were leotards, miniskirts, hotpants, halter tops, and even lame boots. According to the assistant: “Everyone [was] trying to out-Dallas Dallas”
A Global Impact
The impact of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders can’t be underestimated. They became a pop-culture sensation both in the United States and around the world. Their image would be plastered onto a deck of playing cards, they would inspire movie characters, and have posters made up of themselves.
Some cheerleaders even had cameo appearances in movies like The Love Boat and Family Feud. Their talents were recognized by the U.S. government too, as these girls took part in U.S.O. tours after being personally requested by the Defense Department. These girls were iconic.
No Girls Allowed!
Did you know that the very first cheerleaders were actually men? From the 19th to the early 20th century, it had been an exclusively male sport. Take a look at the guys in the photo below, jumping with delight in matching uniforms! Also known as Yell Men, these guys sure look like they brought the cheer.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1923 that women were allowed to join in on all the fun – and that was only at the University of Minnesota. But don’t be fooled, other universities wouldn’t follow suit until the war years. When men were drafted for WW2, women had more of an opportunity to engage in cheerleading.
The Most Dangerous Sport
Did you know that cheerleaders carry the highest risk of catastrophic injury to women out of all the sports? It’s crazy to think, but these brave athletes are at major risk what with all the high intensity gymnastics and human pyramids. Unfortunately, at times the injuries have been truly disastrous.
In 2006, one particular cheerleader fell from the top of a human pyramid at Southern Illinois University. She ended up fracturing her vertebrae, bruising her lung, and suffering from a concussion, but she still carried on performing even while being carried away in a stretcher! That right there tells you a lot about the dedication that these girls can have.
A Surge In Popularity
In the late ’40s, cheerleading was seen as something that both male and female college students would engage in. But the ’50s saw the scales tip more to one side than the other. A former cheerleader called Lawrence Herkimer opened a cheerleading education school in Texas back in 1949.
That first year, she accepted 52 women into her school. It was such a hit that she was asked to open up the school once more, this time with 350 girls in attendance! It got so big that she ended up forming the the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) which we still have to this day.
Booted and Spurred
These cheerleaders are wearing particularly revealing outfits for the early sixties. They are the cheerleaders of the Dallas Texans, performing during halftime a game. Pictured in an American Football League match, they’re bringing plenty of whimsical cheer in their cowboy hats.
The Dallas cheerleaders are also wearing a long sleeve western shirt, which contrasts with their very short shorts. Even if we hadn’t told you these were cheerleaders from the Dallas Texans, we’re sure y’all would able to tell by the uniform scheme, which is apty wild wild west.
The Makeup Had Evolved
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate how much cheerleaders’ makup changed over the years. When cheerleading was on the up in the ’50s, the makeup was kept very minimal. It made the girls look sweet and more innocent, which went hand-in-hand with the highschool image it had.
But by the time it was 1990, pictured above, it was expected that cheerleaders should wear a full face of makeup in their performances. However, it still needed to be applied in a neutral way that kept in-line with the girls’ wholesome image. Take a look at the heavy blush placement on this cheerleader.
Jumping for Joy
This perfectly timed moment makes the ’50s look like a lot of fun. In this photo three American cheerleaders twirl mid-air during the United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) Football League Final. It’s 1952, and we can see how far cheerleader outfits have come since then.
The cheerleaders are wearing long skirts that sit below the knee, and to us it might seem like a reserved style of clothing. But it was only the norm back in the ’50s for women to wear this skirt length – anything shorter was totally scandalous. This picture perfectly demonstrates the childlike innocence that was once associated with the sport.
Celebrating Their History
Take a look at these cheerleaders from the early nineties. Notice anything strange? Yep, they’re a lot more covered up than people were used to seeing from the girls on the side. That’s because the San Francisco 49ers Cheerleaders dressed how they used to in the good old days.
The 49ers are wearing the old and traditional style of uniform – loose fiiting sweaters, long skirts past the knee, and long socks rolled down to the foot. In this game, the 49ers defeated the New Orleans Saints 24-13. Maybe these special uniforms were their good luck charm.
Welcome To the Stage, the Muscles
The girls in this cheerleading squad are being taken for a spin by – yes – male cheerleaders! There’s no gender discrimination in this photo. There were as many guy cheerleaders as there were girls in the Oklahoma Sooners Cheerleaders team once upon a time.
Captured at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, this photo shows some essential members of the group. As you can tell by the muscles on these guys, they were the ones doing all the heavy lifting – or throwing, in this case. And it honestly looks like so much fun.