Bloomers and Beyond

North Carolina Women's Basketball Uniforms, 1901–1997

Pamela Grundy

"Players should be dressed in clothing which is not only proper but attractive, and which will remain in place during the game." —Athletics for High School Girls, North Carolina College for Women, November 1921

It is the winter of 1997, and Tiffany Cummings plies the South Robeson High School basketball court, watched by a reporter who has traveled from the state capital to the tiny town of Row­land just to see her play. Cummings is the Mustangs’ star scorer, with a soft touch that mesmerized her coach the first time he saw her loft a shot in gym class, and launched him on a furious campaign to re­cruit her for the team. But the Raleigh News and Observer has not sent its writer on a hundred-mile trip because of Cummings’s hot three-point hand. Rather, it is for her dress. Instead of donning the blue and white shorts sported by her teammates, Cummings dribbles and shoots and drives to the basket wearing a skirt sewn by her mother, one which reaches modestly below her knees. Her father, a Baptist with a strict view of the Bible, has no trouble with his daughter playing ball, even if her energetic play does sometimes “knock people down.” But he will not let her appear in clothing “which pertaineth unto a man.”2

The unusual attire draws considerable attention, Cummings admits. But it has not hurt her game. “A lot of people thought it was ridiculous,” she told the re­porter. “But I think I’ve proved them wrong.”

Nobody around here ever played basketball in a skirt before.

In 1997 Tiffany Cummings’s situation seemed unusual enough to warrant statewide notice, and she took the interest in stride, observing, “Nobody around here ever played basketball in a skirt before.” But rather than representing the ex­ception such words imply, her mid-calf, slightly gathered skirtsa white one for home games, a blue one for awayin fact link her to a century of North Caroli­na experience, in which several generations of the state’s young women have con­tended with the implications of treading ground so often claimed by men. As with women venturing into business or politics, basketball players have found themselves enmeshed in a shifting web of concerns about physical capabilities, biblical imperatives, social roles, and sexual display. And in keeping with the sub­stantial social freight so often placed on women’s physical appearance, such is­sues have regularly surfaced in players’ uniforms. While photos of North Carolina men’s teams show little outward change from decade to decade, those of women display dramatic transformations. And in those images, in outfits that range from billowing black wool to tight-fitting blue satin, lie clues to women’s broader experiences, illuminating norms of female comportment, the points at which female athletes challenged such assumptions, and the ways that such re­bellious implications could be cloaked in the reassuring sights of long skirts or bright red smiles.

This essay first appeared in vol. 3, no. 3 (Spring 1997).

Left: Katie Lee Griffith coached at Mecklenburg County's Dixie High School in 1916, courtesy of Betty Berryhill McCall. Right: Courtesy of the University Archives, 1901, Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

In outfits that range from billowing black wool to tight-fitting blue satin, lie clues to women’s broader experiences.

North Carolina women first took up basketball in the late 1890s, when sports and exercise became part of the expanding curriculum offered by the state’s new women’s colleges. Players reveled in the game, which allowed them a freedom of movement and emotional release rarely permitted by the decorous conventions that governed their daily lives. But their outfits showed meticulous adherence to existing standards of “proper” female dress. The 1901 squad from the North Car­olina State Normal and Industrial School sat for their yearbook photo in heavy, dark skirts that reached to their shoetops, lengthy sleeves that stretched well be­yond their wrists, and collars that pulled tight to their necks. Were it not for the elaborately constructed basket rising behind them and the leather ball that Mary Ward held to her side, it would be difficult to imagine them playing basketball at all. The women posed quietly, demure, avoiding the camera’s gaze as though it were invading the private sphere that was seen as women’s place, and the wisps of hair escaping from beneath Daphne Carraway’s hat offered the only hint they might engage in strenuous activity.3

Long skirts, however, proved impractical for basketball, even when the game was played under the tellingly devised “girls rules” that restricted each player to a small section of the court and forbade physical contact. By 1910 most players had adopted more daring garb, the voluminous Turkish-style trousers named after their inventor, women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer. Although the bloomers in team photographs today seem little more revealing than the skirts that preceded them, Victorian propriety ran strong in North Carolina, and bloomer-clad young women could cause considerable stir.

Cartoon of a woman wearing the Bloomer Costume, named after Amelia Bloomer, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Caps and Belles, 1907, courtesy of Queens College.

In 1908, when players from Charlotte’s Elizabeth College scheduled an un­precedented public match with neighboring Presbyterian College, organizers barred male spectators altogether and warned that “a close watch will be kept to see that none enter in disguise.” But rather than averting scandal, the decision only stirred up further interest. City newspapers lamented the decree, predicting that “business would have been suspended and the populace would have turned out en masse.” Further evidence of the event’s attractions surfaced when a num­ber of young men appeared on rooftops around the field, abandoning their posi­tions only when confronted by police. The Charlotte News responded with a car­toon that depicted observers holding opera-glasses, a Keystone Kops policeman, and a bloomer-clad player whose outfit seemed unusually revealing. The Charlotte Observer reported with similar amusement on the young men who watched the game “in spite of the inhibition of those in charge.”4

Mama and Daddy wouldn’t allow me to play on the team, for the girls wore blue serge bloom­ers, navy blue and beautifully pleated.

The sensation the match created, with its upended conventions and suggestive overtones, was precisely the sort of publicity that supporters of the still-contro­versial idea of women’s education were anxious to avoid, and most players sought to conceal their new dress, even at the expense of dignity. ”After players put on their ‘gym’ suits . . . they . . . put on long black stockings, a top skirt which had a way of hanging down behind, and . . . [threw] a coat around the shoulders,” State Normal School graduate Marion Stevens Hood recalled of the perilous outdoor dash that bloomer-clad players made from dorm room to gym. “The rear effect of the whole outfit reminded one of a rooster’s tail feathers in wet weather,” she concluded, “but we were nothing if not sticklers to the strictest sense of modesty.”5 Concern over bloomers persisted well into the 1910s. A 1916 photo from Shaw University shows players gazing directly at the camera, apparently at ease with the exposure. But school catalogs reveal persisting unease about athletic wear. That year’s announcement discussed women’s attire at length, including the re­quest that female students bring “a dark blue middy blouse, short skirt and bloomers, and a pair of tennis shoes.” While the 1917 instructions dropped the skirt, students were cautioned that the bloomers they packed should be (in italics) “very fuli.”6 As late as 1926, the outfit kept at least one young Charlotte resident from joining her school squad for reasons similar to those invoked by Tiffany Cummings’s father. “Mama and Daddy wouldn’t allow me to play on the team,” Frances Bullard wrote longingly years later, “for the girls wore blue serge bloom­ers, navy blue and beautifully pleated. Wearing britches was a sin.”7

In 1916 Shaw University players remained well concealed behind combinations of skirts and bloomers, courtesy of Shaw University.

Bloomers presented female athletes with some physical challenges. “These were great big blowzy bloomers, with elastic, and of course we had to button them or pin them up at the waist,” explained Catawba High School player Vada Setzer Hewins, adding that active players often suffered from the nagging worry that a pin would suddenly come loose. Still, North Carolina women had grown accustomed to circumventing such curbs on their actions, and they found the outfits encouraged some unorthodox defensive strategies. “The bloomers would blouse out and [a player] could pinch oneyou couldn’t even tell she had ahold of it,” recalled Dan Davis, a high school coach from Union County. “She’d start to run, she’d find out somebody was holding her.”8

“These were great big blowzy bloomers, with elastic, and of course we had to button them or pin them up at the waist.”

By the rebellious 1920s, when many American women cast off both physical and cultural restrictions, basketball uniforms took on new meaning, linked with both a growing freedom of movement and a new self-confidence. The spread of basketball to high schools had brought new attention to the women’s game, and players eagerly took on this public role. In 1994, as she launched on an account of games won, skills acquired, and money earned, Charlotte’s Elizabeth Newitt paused to gaze over the bobbed-haired players in her 1923 team picture, and noted they had the assurance to roll their stockings down below their knees. “We rolled out,” she explained. “We wore hose, and if you see this picture, we’ve got our hose rolled down. You see how we did it.”9

The sight of exposed knees would not seem scandalous for long. As North Carolinians moved into the orbit of a nationwide mass culture, one which aban­doned Victorian decorum in favor of glamour, excitement, and sexual appeal, the scantily clad stars that populated movies and magazines made bloomers seem clumsily old-fashioned. By the early 1930s, teams throughout the state began to trade them in for shorts.

By 1923 Central High School players were comfortable with baring knees and elbows. Elizabeth Newitt is third from right. Snips 'n' Cuts (Central High School annual), 1923, courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Players loved the new outfits. Shorts were easier to play in, they looked far more up-to-date, and they also helped to emphasize accomplishments and con­nections to a school. Bloomers were usually black or navy- many players recalled wearing not “bloomers” but “black bloomers.” Tops were dark or white. But the new uniforms were bright with school colors, and their numbers gave players a stronger claim on individual identity. “The first two years I played, in the eighth and ninth grade, we had the bloomers and middy blouses,” recalled Lavinia Ardrey Kell, who competed for Pineville High School in the 1930s. “But when I was a junior and senior, we got basketball suits, with a ‘P’ for Pineville and our number in the back. They were the school colors, blue with gold. We thought that was something.”10

Shorts-clad players also knew they had ventured onto sometimes-disputed ground. Vada Hewins recalled the disapproving “rumors” that ran through her rural community when Catawba High School players appeared in their thigh­ baring garb. “I know the principal heard it, the coach and all,” she noted, al­though, “they didn’t just come right up to me and say it.” Other young women had more direct confrontations with conservative family members, disputes that forced them to assert their right to change. ”At one period of time we lived with my grandmother,” recalled Katharine Farris Moyle, who competed in the blue satin of Thomasboro High in the 1940s. “My grandmother, being of the older generation, had never seen me in my basketball uniform, because she just would have died to think that you were exposing that much of your body. So one day I was going to a game, and my mother said ‘Go let mama see your basketball uni­form.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ So I go down and show grandmother my basketball uniform, and she just about had a fit, because I was so exposed and because I was going out and being seen by all these people with that skinny uniform on.”11

I never would have thought I would have been able to see this.

Like bloomers in their heyday, the new uniforms did attract some spectators concerned more with appearance than with athletic skill. “I remember this­ though I will not call the name of the schoolwe were having a basketball game, and the girls were dressed then in what I call shorts,” Dan Davis recalled, his discretion already hinting at his story’s theme. “I remember one old gentleman came up to me. He said, ‘I never would have thought I would have been able to see this.'” Davis, laughing, went on to emphasize: “He didn’t mind it at all, no. He didn’t mind it at all.”12

Pinehurst Women's Basketball Team, 1935, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC–Chapel Hill.

By 1934 the squad representing Livingstone College had joined teams around the state in the switch from bloomers to shorts, courtesy of the College Archives, Carnegie Library, Livingstone College.

Such attention, however, was not entirely unwelcome. As popular concepts of womanhood increasingly came to focus on physical allure, uniforms that were “not only proper but attractive” also served other ends. Even as young women developed greater skills and competed with increased fervor, short shorts, bright colors, and other “feminine” touches began to fill the role that long skirts and tight collars had played in 1901, connecting players to prevailing social conventions and muting implications that their play would propel them beyond accept­ed women’s roles. The highly skilled and fiercely competitive teams that repre­sented the state’s textile mills pursued this strategy with particular zeal, and mem­bers of nationally renowned squads such as Hanes Hosiery found themselves enveloped by chaperones, strict dress codes, and publicity that emphasized homemaking skills and physical charm. Many high school players also carefully cultivated a feminine appearance. ”We were called the Ramlettes,” recalled Gladys Worthy, who starred for Gastonia’s Highland High School decades before her son James made his own place in state basketball history. “We had the Rams and the Ramlettes. And we’d always have to wear white bows in our hair. You’d have to wear a white bow in your hair, and white shoes, and make everything just nice.”‘13

You'd have to wear a white bow in your hair, and white shoes, and make everything just nice.

Women’s garb became particularly dazzling after World War II, when many teams adopted uniforms sewn from newly popular synthetic satin. The shiny fab­ric offered a welcome touch of glamour to young women throughout the state, but the drawbacks of the material also made clear that women’s uniforms re­mained more than just athletic garb. When Mary Alyce Clemmons joined the West Charlotte High School varsity in the late 1940s, the outfit she was issued quickly came to symbolize the gap between feminine ideals and athletic realities, as well as the second-class status of the state’s black schools. Following a wide­spread North Carolina practice, financially strapped West Charlotte had acquired the uniforms when white Harding High discarded them. Along with the irrita­tion of wearing second-hand outfits came the problem of the satiny material, which had to be dry cleaned. The school had no money for uniform upkeep, so Clemmons and her teammates were forced to improvise: “You did a lot of press­ing, and steaming, and hanging out to air.”‘14

Second Ward High School team members in satin uniforms, 1949, courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

The shiny fab­ric offered a welcome touch of glamour to young women throughout the state, but the drawbacks of the material also made clear that women’s uniforms re­mained more than just athletic garb.

Eventually, West Charlotte managed to obtain new uniforms. But when Mary Alyce Clemmons entered college in the early 1950s, she encountered a far greater obstacle. That decade saw a broad-based expansion of middle-class feminine ideals, embodied in images of housewives and mothers that clashed with the idea of competitive sports. Such concepts put new pressures on existing women’s teams, even as a rising tide of interest in men’s college basketball strengthened the sport’s male image. Women’s competition dwindled, and tournaments and varsi­ty leagues were frequently replaced by “play days,” in which students formed temporary teams and played largely for amusement. The uniform of choice for such events consisted of a “pinnie”a numbered vest tied over a gym suit-which de­liberately downplayed the importance of team cohesion, individual accomplish­ment, and the will to win.

For young women at the few schools that did retain competitive teams, the sport’s diminished status showed clearly in outfits that grew more tattered by the year. Susan Shackelford, who graduated from Raleigh’s Millbrook High in 1972, recalled the school’s annual “Not-So-Great Uniform Try-On,” in which players confronted the ancient uniforms that school administrators saw no need to re­place. While the men’s basketball teams regularly got new outfits, the women strug­gled. “Could we squeeze into, or not be swallowed up by, the old satiny uniforms we had?” Shackelford later wrote. “Many couldn’t and had to make do with tops or shorts of their own.”

That season we were hot—literally and figuratively.

In the spirit of the social movements that marked that era, players and parents turned to direct action, buying fabric and making their own outfits. Shackelford, who would later become the first female sports editor of the University of North Carolina’s student newspaper, saw the blue and white uniforms as a proud symbol of the team’s willingness to challenge the status quo, although she also recalled that the new look had its own complications. “That season we were hotliterally and figuratively,” she explained. “The design looked great, but the fabric was everybody’s favorite 70s blend: polyester. Only a few trips up and down the court and I felt like a Mississippi steamboat was making the rounds under my uniform.”‘15

Players sporing "pinnies," 1962, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As Shackelford and her teammates sewed and sweated, growing activism around the country gave women’s sports renewed momentum. In 1972 women’s advocates persuaded Congress to pass legislation known as Title IX, which re­quired colleges to expand athletic opportunities for female students. Subsequent boosts in funding, bolstered by expanding views of women’s capabilities, encour­aged a wide range of sports participation. By the 1990s high school and college teams had won back much of their old status and were pushing for broader acclaim.

Yet even in this altered atmosphere, uniforms played some old roles. In Octo­ber of 1994, University of North Carolina star Charlotte Smith strolled out onto a Chapel Hill stage, escorted by well-known designer Alexander Julian. Smith sported a new outfit, a high-style creation that marked the Lady Tar Heels’ arrival into the heady heights of national stardom. Julian’s designs already adorned Char­lotte’s National Basketball Association Hornets and Chapel Hill’s renowned men’s squad, and he had been inspired to turn his skills to the Tar Heel women after they won their own national title, on the strength of a remarkable three-point shot that Smith had launched in the final half-second of the championship game.


Millbrook High School players in the polyester uniforms they made themselves. Susan Shackelford is number 15. Courtesy of Susan Shackelford.

As Smith sailed out onto the runway, it became clear that the new outfits were designed less to showcase athletic skills than to convey feminine charm.

But as Smith sailed out onto the runway, it became clear that the new outfits were designed less to showcase athletic skills than to convey feminine charm. Event publicity echoed the breathless tone of fashion magazines: ”Julian says the uniforms will consist of a paisley sew-in stripe down the sides of the tops and shorts,” one article gushed. “It also will consist of a sleeveless tank top with bor­der trim of UNC’s colors. The shorts will be loose and present a silhouette that will look like a skirt but will give the players freedom of movement resembling men’s sport shorts.”16 At the show, Julian noted that the long, flowing jersey would not be tucked in, accenting the dress-like nature of the outfit. “Why dress a woman like a man?” he asked.17

The persisting focus on such feminine details suggests the extent to which North Carolina’s female athletes still wrestle with the twin issues of propriety and sexuality so aptly symbolized by Tiffany Cummings’s modestly calf-length skirt. In a climate where serious athletic competition continues to clash with main­ stream conceptions of “normal” female behavior, and at a time when women’s teams are working to attract a broad-based audience, athletes in makeup and dress-like uniforms, or coaches who stalk the sidelines in skirts and high heels, can signal that their efforts on the court pose no challenge to broader ideas of femininity, both increasing the sport’s acceptability and sidestepping the highly charged association between female athletic skill and lesbianism. While few teams would go as far as the Australian professional squad that in 1996 boosted audi­ences and averted fiscal ruin by donning skintight Spandex outfits, coverage of that year’s U.S. Olympic women’s team made clear that conventionally attractive athletes drew the lion’s share of attention, helping to expand the popularity of the sport but also raising ongoing questions about the perceptions and ideas that still shape women’s public actions.18

The only requirements are tennis shoes, shorts, and the will to win.

Still, the many challenges these changing uniforms reveal should not displace the broader story these photographs record: the century of determined effort by women for whom disapproving rumors, financial difficulties, unwieldy materials, social restrictions, and all the other complications faced by female athletes in the twentieth century were simply obstacles to overcome in pursuit of their own ideals. Such determination can be found throughout North Carolina history, whether in Tiffany Cummings’s steps across the South Robeson High gym or in a recruiting call sent out at Charlotte’s Second Ward High School during the troubled years of the Great Depression. “The Second Ward Girls’ Basketball Team has just been organized,” students announced in January of 1936. “We are plan­ning to do something no other Second Ward team has ever donewin every game that we play. We want students from all classes. We want fat ones, skinny ones, short ones, tall ones . . . The only requirements are tennis shoes, shorts, and the will to win. If you don’t have the first named two, come anyway, if you have the third, because you can wear soft leather or rubber soled shoes and any kind of a short skirt. Come on girls and help us make our wish come true.” Whether in heavy wool or shiny satin, behind gymnasium walls or on national television, generations of North Carolina’s women have worked toward that same end.19

Charlotte Smith poses with Alexander Julian and several of her teammates in the uniforms he designed far the Lady Tar Heels, courtesy of the Raleigh News and Observer.

Historian and author Pamela Grundy lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her works include the award-winning Learning to Win: Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina (2001) and Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball (2005).

Southern Cultures would like to thank the Museum of the New South for assistance in collect­ing images for this essay.

  1. Mary C. Coleman and Guy B. Phillips, Athletics for High School Girls: The North Carolina Colege far Women Extension Bulletin 3 (November 1925 ), 12.
  2. The Raleigh News and Observer, 9 February 1997, 1-B.
  3. North Carolina State Normal and Industrial College Decennial, 1902, University Archives, Walter Clinton Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
  4. The Charlotte Observer, 7 April 1907; The Charlotte News, 7 April 1907; The Charlotte Observer, 9 April.
  5. Marion Stevens Hood to J. I. Foust, 15 March 193 5, Julius Isaac Foust Papers, University Ar­chives, Walter Clinton Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Hood grad­ uated in 1910.
  6. Forty-second Annual Catalog of the Officers and Students of Shaw University, 1916-17 (Edwards & Broughton Printing Co., 1916), 27; Forry-third Annual Catalog ofthe Officers and Students of Shaw University, 1917–18 (Edwards & Broughton Printing Co., 1917), 11.
  7. The Charlotte Observer, 30 August 1993, A-8.
  8. Interview with Vada Setzer Hewins, 1 5 March 1993; Interview with Dan Davis, 12 October 1993, Museum of the New South, Charlotte, North Carolina.
  9. Interview with Elizabeth Stratford Newitt, 7 December 1992, Museum of the New South, Charlotte, North Carolina. Excerpts from this interview, and from several of the others quoted here, can be found in Pamela Grundy, The Most Democratic Sport: Basketball and Culture in the Cen­tral Piedmont, 1893–1994 ( Museum of the New South, 1994).
  10. Interview with Sam Ardrey and Lavinia Ardrey Kell, 10 December 1992, Museum of the New South, Charlotte, North Carolina.
  11. Hewins interview; Interview with Katharine Farris Moyle, 18 March 1993, Museum of the New South, Charlotte, North Carolina.
  12. Davis interview.
  13. Interview with Gladys Thompson Worthy, 6 May 1993, Museum of the New South, Char­ lotte, North Carolina. See also Susan Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sex11aliry in Twentieth­ Century Women’s Sport(The Free Press, 1994); Elva Bishop, “Amateur Athletic Union Women’s Basketball, 1950–1971: The Contributions of Hanes Hosiery, Nashville Business College, and Wayland Baptist College,” (M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1984), and Kathryn L. Wall, “‘We Always Loved to Play Basketball:’ A Window of Opportunity for Working­ Class Women’s Sports, Winston-Salem and Elkin, North Carolina, 1934–1949” (M.A. thesis, Uni­versity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1994).
  14. Interview with Mary Alyce Clemmons, 2 September 1993, Museum of the New South, Charlotte, North Carolina.
  15. Susan Shackelford, “Hoop Dreams: Women’s Basketball Comes of Age,” Creative Loafing 10 (30 March 19 96):12.
  16. The Daily Tar Heel, 20 October 1994.
  17. The Chapel Hill Newspaper, 23 October 1994, B-2.
  18. Mary Jo Festle, Playing Nice: Politics and Apologies in Women’s Sports (Columbia University Press, 1996).
  19. Second Ward Herald, January 1936, Alumni House, Second Ward High School National Alumni Foundation, Charlotte, North Carolina.