Pom-poms, tiny skirts and big smiles are cheerleaders' trademarks, but the eternally perky sets are flashing a lot more than pearly whites on the sidelines this football season.
The teasing sex appeal of classic cheerleading uniforms has been replaced in Philadelphia and a few other stadiums with mini two-piece ensembles that flash skin from cheek to cheek, stirring a variety of reactions from fans.
“I would say it achieved the 'wow' factor, which is something we were going after," said Philadelphia Eagles (search)’ cheerleading director Barbara Zaun. "Jaws were dropping when they debuted on Monday Night Football Sept. 8.”
The Eagles hired celebrity bridal gown designer Vera Wang (search) to create new 2003 cheerleader uniforms, which do away with the skirts, in favor of boy shorts and a plunging top.
But not everyone is pleased with the revealing new look.
“I think it’s sad. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cheerleader if that’s how she had to sell herself," said Marie Wilson, a football fan and mother of three in New Castle, Del., who added that the games are a family event for many and having the camera zoom in on a cheerleader’s cleavage can be uncomfortable.
However, Zaun contended that many fans appreciate the latest fashions. “It’s exciting for male fans to see these gorgeous women in outfits that enhance their figures,” she said. "We’ve gotten an overall positive response from the fans."
Ben McRoberts, a 26-year-old football fan in New York City is one such admirer. “Every dude digs a cheerleader outfit,” he said.
And many female fans also appreciate the new uniforms, according to Zaun, who said women admire Wang’s work and the athletic physiques the cheerleaders maintain.
Wilson, for her part, said it's absurd that the team hired such a prominent designer to craft an outfit that looks like it “could’ve [been] pulled off the bathing suit rack at JC Penney.”
The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders (search) were the original stadium-heaters, wearing sexy western-inspired uniforms since the squad formed in 1972. They have stuck with their look -- the white and blue blouse, vest and shorts -- that once had jaws dropping around the world, but now seem tame in comparison. The ensemble has only been slightly modified six times since conception.
The Eagles’ outfits marked Wang’s design debut on the gridiron and Zaun said having a well-known designer ensured attention for the cheerleaders and the team.
“We wanted to be the first squad to have an internationally recognized designer design our uniforms, to set the Eagles cheerleaders apart from other squads,” she said. “We feel they are glamorous, sophisticated and cutting edge.”
McRoberts said he wouldn’t classify cheerleaders as classy, but as “extra eye candy thrown in the game” whose “main purpose is to act as sex appeal.”
Over a three-year span, Wang worked on the uniforms, meeting with the team owner and actual cheerleaders to make sure the fit was right and comfortable for their routines.
Eagles cheerleader Amanda Morris, 24, said the uniforms are keeping up with the times, as the squads swap rah-rahs for dance routines. “We practice all week in sports bras and shorts, so it’s comfortable for us to perform in a similar uniform.”
Wilson scoffed at this explanation. “I’ve been to games at Notre Dame and they’ve got really good cheerleaders and they aren’t inhibited by their skirts.”
Whether cheering or jeering the new looks, Morris said even if the game is going poorly, crowds will stick around to watch the cheerleaders perform -- and the fans’ fascination with the uniforms has been obvious.
“People who are already sitting up close use binoculars," she said. "They can’t get enough of us.”
Starting Sunday, such fans will have their peepers locked on the fall uniform (Wang designed three seasonal looks) consisting of a black mini-skirt and Grecian style top. Wintertime means tight black dance pants, a white leotard top and a three-quarter sleeved sweater that’s “open at the chest,” Zaun explained.
Despite attempts to go for a wow-factor, McRoberts said many guys prefer the nostalgic skirt uniform to the itsy-bitsy offerings today, explaining that the cheer-lust goes back to high school for when cheerleaders were considered untouchable.
But Morris is convinced the new outfits will eventually win all fans over.
“We knew it was going to be a little shocking, a little different, but every team has their persona and this is ours,” she said. “Not only are we beautiful girls, but talented as dancers and public speakers -- it’s a whole package and we try to show that package off as best as possible.”