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Skirts and the Slam Dunk: The History of Women’s Basketball Uniforms

There’s no doubt that basketball has had a profound effect on fashion over the decades. From Nike to hip-hop, to K-pop, the unisex baggy shorts and vests with linear piping have been appreciated on and off the court. That sport-focused look, however, wasn’t always so ubiquitously known across the women’s and men’s teams. For the women of basketball, the key item for a large chunk of basketball’s lifespan was the skirt.

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Over the decades, women who played basketball were told to put modesty over practicality. Men ruled that a woman's femininity must be preserved and as such, in the 19th-century, women often played in floor-length wool skirts. Players would trip and bruise, further fuelling the trope that women were too frail or weak to play. Basketball itself was even adapted into a more ‘appropriate’ and docile game for women, only fully returning to a full-court game in 1971. As the women’s game grew in popularity, viewers were progressively more frustrated at the off-kilter balance between femininity and athleticism. Reports across Europe and the US described the game as ‘vulgar’ and that women were playing with ‘grim and murderous’ conviction. Society jeered not only at the unsightliness of having women play such a ‘masculine’ sport but the revealing uniforms too. With the introduction of the knee-length flapper skirt in the ‘20s came a similarly shorter length for the women’s wool basketball skirts and bloomers. Despite all the tempestuous sexism, these Gatsby-esque hemlines continued for another few decades. Interestingly, team sports in Europe, such as football and handball, were already encouraging the introduction of baggy button-able shorts in as early as the ‘30s. The misogyny within basketball enforced skirts as if to take away an element of legitimacy within the women’s teams. But the ‘40s and ‘50s made waves for change. With the production of cheaper materials, wool uniforms were finally replaced with functional polyesters and nylons. Thanks to the female workforce of the Second World War, a new and overdue image of strong females permeated the world over and belted satin shorts started to creep into the games.

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It wasn’t until the swinging sixties that shorts with elasticated waistbands finally made it to the women’s changing rooms and skirts appeared less and less on the courts. The shorts at this time were kept daringly short, mirroring the mini-skirts and fashions of the time, as well as the era’s push for gender-equality and women’s liberation. The more the women’s game was respected, the more their uniform mirrored the men’s. In 1980, it was a domino of progression for the game and the uniform; women’s basketball entered the Olympics, the FIBA World Championship for Women was underway and the women’s sport rocketed in worldwide popularity. Female players began to sport the loose longline shorts of the now, no longer enforced to wear a skirt or an insufficient alternative to the men. As the world moved toward gender-equality so did the women’s basketball uniforms. Fast-forward to today and Lycra compression shorts, sweat-wicking polyester vests, lightweight jerseys and breathable baggy shorts are all commonplace, each allowing for that all-important total free range of motion. Within the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) choice is now plentiful and players can select the styles and fabrics – innovative synthetics for the most part – that suit their bodies best. Be it on the court or the red carpet, basketball uniforms now empower the wearer. From Lola Bunny’s preppy short shorts in Space Jam and Aaliyah’s ‘90s MTV basketball look, to the basketball superstars of Ro-Kyu-Bu! and The Singh sisters of India, the women of basketball are donning skirts, shorts and everything in-between to celebrate the game and themselves.

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Text: Georgina Evans Collage: Amelia Karlsen