It’s one of the most identifiable pieces of American fashion to come out of the twentieth century. The crop top. The hot pants. The go-go boots. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders uniform was such a product of its place and time—Texas in the early 1970s—but it also feels timeless. The uniform is in the Smithsonian. The Cowboys have spent a million dollars fighting its imitators in court.
In this episode, we explore where that uniform came from. It’s a lot murkier than you might think. To answer the question, we witness a sensational moment in the Cotton Bowl with the 1960s stripper Bubbles Cash, take a ride on Jerry Jones’s private jet, and visit Dee Brock, the 91-year-old former fashion model and college professor who founded the Cowboys cheerleaders.
You can dive deeper into the stories in this episode in our Pocket collection. You’ll find videos and news stories about the cheerleaders, including more about Bubbles Cash and Dee Brock, and the Texanist’s investigation into the cheerleaders’ shrinking uniforms.
You can read more about the stories in this episode in Joe Nick Patoski’s book on the Cowboys, The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America. Footage from the Smithsonian ceremony is from CBS DFW. Tape of the 1969 cheerleaders tryouts is from the G. William Jones Film and Video Collection at Southern Methodist University.
America’s Girls is written and reported by Sarah Hepola. Executive producer is Megan Creydt. Produced and edited by Patrick Michels. Edited by J. K. Nickell. Production, sound engineering, and music by Brian Standefer. Additional research and audio editing by podcast intern Harper Carlton.
Theme music is “Enough” by the Bralettes.
I spent a lot of time talking to people about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. And it didn’t take long to notice a pattern. No matter who I was talking to, or what they thought of the cheerleaders, the conversations always seemed to return to one subject: the uniform.
Ben Fountain: The uniforms are so artful.
This is the Dallas author Ben Fountain. He wrote an award-winning novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk that takes place during a Cowboys game.
Ben Fountain: It’s almost like if the male brain was a pinball machine, the way those uniforms were designed, it’s like, boobs, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. You know, shoulder—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Tummy—and then all the way down to the boots. I mean, the boots were just like, kaboom, kaboom, kaboom. It’s like you’re running up points.
It was a uniform that launched a million fantasies. Women dream of putting that uniform on—and men dream of taking that uniform off.
Ben Fountain: You look around the league now and to show lots of flesh is, I mean, it’s normal. And it would be weird if they were more covered up. And so I think it’s just, you know, it’s become part of the culture now. Whereas in the ’70s, it was, like, extremely bracing. You know, it’s something that made you sit up and notice.
Ben grew up in the South in the sixties, and the dress code at his sister’s school was so strict she was sent home for wearing culottes. If you missed the culotte moment, they’re these baggy split skirts that often come past the knee.
Ben Fountain: So by the time the Cowboys cheerleaders showed up on my radar, even then the uniform was quite something. I mean, this was like sex on a billboard.
And the cultural impact of this?
Ben Fountain: I think you can’t measure it. I mean, just where America was going, starting in the late ’60s and into the ’70s, it’s, you know, just the exaggeration of sports, commerce, sex. And I think the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were a huge part of that.
There’s no one reason the cheerleaders became the force that they did—but if I had to give an answer? Just one answer? It might be that uniform.
The blue crop top tied at the center. The fringed vest with blue stars. Those teensy white hot pants and boots. It’s a simple look, but one cheerleader I spoke with compared it to a superhero costume.
In fact, the uniform is so iconic, so singular in the pop-culture landscape, that in 2018, it was inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. A treasure alongside Dorothy’s red slippers, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, and Jonas Salk’s original polio vaccine.
To celebrate the uniform’s induction, there was a gathering for press and close friends inside the museum, in a small auditorium where the uniforms were up on the stage.
Charlotte Jones spoke that day. She’s the executive vice president of the team and the president of the cheerleaders. She’s also, of course, the daughter of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Charlotte Jones: This is such an incredible opportunity. And when we look at all of the archives, not only the ones that you shared behind the vault with us today, but throughout this entire museum, I mean, they resemble American history.
She told the audience, “We are a game of unity. We’re about bringing people together.”
But someone important had been left out that day: the woman who, more than anyone else, is responsible for bringing us that uniform.
On this week’s episode, a story about who actually created the cheerleaders, what gets left out of the history books, and what that iconic uniform really cost. From Texas Monthly, I’m Sarah Hepola, and this is America’s Girls. Episode 4, “The Uniform.”
There’s an origin story people like to tell about the inspiration for this famous uniform. It’s November 1967. There’s a big Cowboys game on Sunday, and fans came straight from church, still dressed up.
Back then, the Dallas Cowboys played at the Cotton Bowl, which held around 75,000 people. 1967 was turning out to be a good season for the Cowboys, so: a big crowd.
And the way a lot of people tell it, what happened that day was the Big Bang that created the modern Cowboys cheerleaders.
Greg Skinner: My seat was on about the thirty-yard line, on the Cowboys side of the field.
This is Greg Skinner, a retired consultant in Dallas who happened to be there that day.
Greg Skinner: And at some point, there was a commotion in the crowd. And everybody starts standing up. And it looks like the wave that people do, except it’s going in both directions at the same time. And people are standing up and gawking and saying, “What? What? What’s going on?”
And Greg, who’s fourteen years old at the time, he’s in the middle of this sea of big shoulders, dying to get a look. Not at the action on the field, but at something happening in the stands.
Greg Skinner: I managed to worm my way between some people’s shoulders. And I look over, and on the fifty-yard line, walking from the top going down toward the Cowboy bench, is this woman. A curvaceous woman with the big blond hair that Dallas women were known for in the sixties. And I believe she either had on shorts or a short skirt.
It was a leopard-print mini, but Greg wasn’t tall enough to see.
Greg Skinner: But what I definitely remember is she’s walking down the steps carrying two bright pink cotton candies, right in front of her breasts. And she’s sashaying down the aisle, and everybody’s standing up trying to see what’s going on. In fact, the guy next to me is punching me in the arm saying, “Hey, kid, can I borrow your binoculars?” It’s like time stopped. The Cowboys coaches and players on the sideline turned around to see what was going on and just stared at this woman and her bright pink cotton candies.
Greg didn’t know it at the time, but this was Bubbles Cash—a stripper in Dallas who’d gotten tickets to the game from Cowboys players who’d seen her at the club where she danced. By today’s standards, what Bubbles was wearing wasn’t racy at all. But Bubbles was also an early adopter of a procedure that would become very popular in Dallas over the next decades: breast implants. Which doctors in Houston had just developed.
Greg Skinner: Dallas was very conservative in the sixties. I mean, it was a churchgoing, uptight, buttoned-down world.
The boobs, the miniskirt, the bright pink cotton candies—it made an impression.
Greg Skinner: I didn’t come home and say, “Hey, Mom, Meredith threw a touchdown pass, or, you know, Dan Reeves ran for a touch—” I said, “You’re not going to believe this woman with the cotton candy.”
Sarah Hepola: And what did your mom say, when you told her that?
Greg Skinner: She said, “Really . . . cotton candy? Well, what do you think she was doing?” You know? I didn’t say it to my mom, but my thought was, “Working it.” You know? That’s what she was doing.
Greg wasn’t the only one who kept telling the story. You could say Bubbles went old-school viral.
Greg Skinner: Next morning, she wakes me up for me to get ready to go to school, and she says, “What do you think is on the front page of the paper?” “I don’t know.” “Your friend, from the Cotton Bowl.” And she was.
Bubbles Cash became a media sensation. Shots had been fired—and the sexual revolution was coming for Dallas.
Sarah Hepola: Oh! And what happened in the ’67 game? Who won?
Greg Skinner: I don’t even know who they played. I have no idea.
Sarah Hepola: That’s so funny. They played the Atlanta Falcons.
Greg Skinner: Good for them.
She became a fixture at Cowboys games after that. During the week, she danced at the burlesque club to growing crowds. And on Sunday, she watched the Cowboys play. This was great publicity—on both sides.
Joe Nick Patoski: She became a celebrity. She was flown to out-of-town games to go watch the Cowboys. You know, she became the Cowboys sweetheart for a nanosecond.
This is Joe Nick Patoski, the journalist you heard in the first episode. He wrote a book about the history of the Dallas Cowboys.
Joe Nick Patoski: Bubbles inspired a whole wave of copycats. And generally they were women who were strippers—not just in Dallas, but all over the United States. They wanted to get in on the act. So women started jumping out on the field to kiss players, to kiss coaches. And, basically, it was very disruptive, but it was part of the show now. So Tex is no fool and puts two and two together.
Tex Schramm—the Cowboys’ visionary general manager. He had an eye for spectacle, and in a world before Jumbotrons, before iPhones, before a million forms of eye candy, Bubbles Cash was surely a lesson in the power of a beautiful woman, scantily clad.
Joe Nick Patoski: There is a phenomenon that’s beginning to occur, and it helps establish the Cowboys as something more than a football franchise. In many respects I looked at Bubbles as validating the Cowboys as a way of life. And it’s not just going to watch a football game. It’s going to, you know, be in the middle of a happening. You never know what’s going to happen when you go to the Cowboys games.
The Bubbles Cash incident was a real moment. And when the new Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders made their big debut in 1972, Bubbles liked to say she was the inspiration. And that idea gained a lot of traction over the years. Who could resist it? The story that a stripper is the inspiration behind America’s Sweethearts is too delicious.
I love the tale of Bubbles Cash, a colorful, self-made woman who blazed her own path. Later, she had a brief B-movie career in films like Mars Needs Women, and even ran for governor.
But there’s really only one person who could tell me about Bubbles’s role in inspiring the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. And when I tracked her down, this is what she said.
Sarah Hepola: Have you heard of Bubbles Cash?
Dee Brock: No. I never heard of her.
Sarah Hepola: Wow. Okay.
Dee Brock: Probably, she never heard of me either, but . . .
This is Dee Brock. She’s ninety-one years old, and she’s one of the last living members of that early Cowboy era. I have to admit, I’d never heard of Dee Brock when I started this project. She only gets a passing mention on the cheerleaders’ Wikipedia page, where Bubbles Cash gets almost a full paragraph. But meeting her changed the way I saw the creation of this squad. I’ll let her introduce herself.
Dee Brock: My name is Dee Brock, and I was the founder of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
Dee lives in Tyler, a city in East Texas. I drove out to visit her, thinking I was meeting a sweet old lady who’d played a passing role in a global phenomenon. Instead I met a dynamic woman whose place in the Cowboys’ history has mysteriously shrunk over the decades. I’d read about Dee in Joe Nick’s book, but in the popular lore, her role has been very much overshadowed. By Suzanne Mitchell, the force of nature who took over in 1976. And by Tex Schramm, who generally gets credit for bringing the cheerleading craze to the NFL.
I found a 1984 history of the Cowboys, and the chapter on the cheerleaders starts like this. Quote: “The cheerleaders began as the creation of one man: Texas E. Schramm.” And . . . that’s one way to tell the story. But here’s another.
Dee Brock: Tex Schramm had nothing to do with starting it, except finally give us permission.
I wonder if I’d initially dismissed Dee because some of the stories that did mention her only referred to her as a “sponsor” of the squad, and a former model. But she was so much more.
Sarah Hepola: What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Dee Brock: I thought I was going to be a professor who lived in New York City and wore only green.
Dee was teaching high school English when she came on to the Cowboys. She was a mother of three boys, married to a Dallas Times Herald writer, Bob Brock. They mixed with a swank social scene and met fascinating characters, like Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who shot Lee Harvey Oswald in that other epic story of Dallas in the 1960s.
And though she had never heard of Bubbles Cash, she did meet the woman who inspired Bubbles, Candy Barr. Candy was a famous stripper, and was Jack Ruby’s frequent companion in those days.
Dee Brock: I really liked Candy Barr. I mean, I always admired her because she had a lot of spunk.
Dee also modeled for Neiman Marcus, the luxury store that put Dallas on the fashion map. She told me about one show where she and her long Christian Dior dress got kind of a starring role.
Dee Brock: I had the dress and I opened the show. Mr. Marcus himself picked me out. And he said, “You know, I don’t really like girls that have that much breast.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but there they are.”
And as we’re talking, I keep noticing the hundreds of books behind her. And then I learn she also has a PhD in English. She had a master’s, and was teaching community college while she was running the cheerleaders.
Sarah Hepola: Oh! Dee, I feel like you’re underplaying yourself a little bit here. You just told me that you just studied English. It just seemed real, like, yeah, no big deal.
Okay. So this woman is a mother, a model, an academic, a teacher, and by the way, helped start the first community college in Dallas. And as she’s talking, it starts sinking in: she pretty much built the engine of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. How had I missed that? How had history missed that?
Let’s roll back the clock to 1960, to the very start of the franchise. Back then, in Texas, college football reigned. Here’s Joe Nick Patoski again.
Joe Nick Patoski: If you were in Texas, the National Football League, pro football, really didn’t matter in 1960.
But that year, Dallas got two professional teams—the Cowboys and the Texans. And they were competing for a slim audience.
Joe Nick Patoski: So the running joke was, you know, “Did you hear about the guy that left four Cowboys tickets on his dashboard, of his car, and someone smashed in his windshield, and left four more.” No one wanted to go to that game. They couldn’t give away tickets.
So Tex Schramm was doing whatever he could to get people in Dallas to care. He thought some kind of sideline entertainment made sense.
Joe Nick Patoski: In 1960, when the Cowboys started, Tex Schramm went to Dee Brock, who was a model for the Kim Dawson Agency.
Dee Brock: I went there and he said he wanted to hire models to be the cheerleaders.
Dee stopped him right there. Models would cost money. Plus, they don’t move much.
Dee Brock: Because I sort of laughed at him when he said “models.” I was like, “Believe me, models don’t lead cheers.”
She had another idea: How about high school cheerleaders? From the local schools.
Schramm agreed, and put her in charge of building the squad. And she bargained her annual salary up to nine hundred dollars from his original offer, which was nothing.
Dee Brock: And he said, “Oh, I didn’t think I’d have to pay anything. I thought you’d just be glad to do it.” And I said, “Well, you were right, I would be glad to do it, but I’m a working woman. You know? I don’t put on shows for free.”
Sarah Hepola: Where did you find the courage to negotiate with this man? I mean, women weren’t taught to do that back then.
Dee Brock: I don’t know. It just came naturally to me.
She put out a call to the Dallas high schools, and seventy girls tried out. Dee dressed the chosen twelve in white button-downs, and a kerchief tied around their necks. So when the Cowboys took the field, they had teenagers cheering them on.
Dee Brock: He wanted beautiful women on the sidelines. And so he settled for darling girls.
These cheerleaders were not exactly a hit. But Dee kept plugging away, shaking up the look, adding dances, trying to improve the formula. She operated on her own during these years. She didn’t see Tex Schramm much at all. He was busy building a football team.
At one point she added boys for an experiment in coed cheerleading.
There’s a video of the tryouts for this squad in 1969, archived at SMU.
Cheerleaders: C-H-A-R-G-E Charge! C-H-A-R-G-E . . .
A group of high schoolers lined up in a gymnasium, taking turns before the judges. A lot of handclaps and stiff arm movements. Very traditional.
Cheerleaders: Cowboys, charge!
One PR guy dubbed them “the CowBelles and their Beaux.”
Dee Brock: That is one of my embarrassing moments.
Dee really hates that name, which got slapped on her legacy.
Dee Brock: I think that is just disgusting. I am really sorry that that ever happened.
They didn’t use the nickname for long, but a number of histories refer to the entire pre-1972 era as the CowBelles and their Beaux.
Dee had plenty of triumphs, though. She integrated the squad in 1965, when the football team had a handful of Black players but much of Dallas was still segregated. It’s a move that shaped the early look of the squad in a profound way. In 1971, half the cheerleaders were Black.
She had teamed up with a teacher named Frances Roberson, who worked at one of the Black schools in Dallas.
Dee Brock: And my convincing Mr. Schramm to have mixed girls on the field was just maybe the hardest thing I’ve wanted that I had to work so hard for. I think it was really a shock, because nowhere else in Dallas at the time that I know of had any thought of integrating the races.
And she was doing this without much support from other arms of the organization. The main PR guy for the Cowboys?
Dee Brock: He didn’t like the cheerleaders. He didn’t think cheerleaders added anything to the game. And he thought all the attention should go to the players.
When the Cowboys made it to their first Super Bowl, she says Tex Schramm refused to pay for the cheerleaders’ travel. So Dee went on a local TV show to ask for money. And she got it. When the Cowboys went back to the Super Bowl the next year . . . same thing.
Listening to Dee, I couldn’t help wondering if the cheerleaders made it through that decade not thanks to the Cowboys but in spite of them. Probably more true is that very few people in that football franchise thought about them at all.
The team, by the way, was getting really good. They’d been to the Super Bowl two years in a row, and they won that second one, in 1972.
Announcer: The Dallas Cowboys, within now only five seconds of the championship of the National Football League, winner of the Vince Lombardi trophy . . .
They had moved from the Cotton Bowl into their new home, Texas Stadium. It was the first stadium built specifically for professional football. It had luxury boxes. And a signature look: a roof with a hole in it, as the saying went, “so God can watch his favorite team.” And Dee starts thinking it’s time for a big change.
She wanted more dancing—so she turned to a choreographer, a woman she knew with New York theater experience, Texie Waterman, who brought Broadway to the AstroTurf. Dee is the one who found her and hired her. Dee says Schramm wouldn’t pay for that either, so Dee split her own salary, which had been knocked down to six hundred dollars. So there you go: three hundred for each woman to launch a legendary team.
But of course, they needed to change their image. A new look, a new era. Showbiz.
Dee Brock: I went to Mr. Schramm and I said, “I think we need to get an older group of girls.” And he said, “Old? We’re not going to have old women out there.” “No, I’m thinking eighteen and above.” And I wanted to have a sexier costume.
Sarah Hepola: Did you use the word “sexier”?
Dee Brock: No. Not that, but it was in my mind. I wanted the girls to show off. And I wanted people to look at them and notice they were there.
Dee knew a few things about getting noticed. She told me a story about acting in a summer musical back in the fifties where she had to wear a racy bikini. It was almost like her own Bubbles Cash story.
Dee Brock: My role was really just to strut across the stage in a bathing suit. And my bikini was extremely scarce on materials. But it, it made me sort of famous in one side of modeling.
Funny thing about that story: the other woman who dared to wear a bikini onstage that night was Texie Waterman. That’s actually how Dee and Texie met. And so the power of the scantily clad woman—Dee knew it firsthand. And she wanted those cheerleaders to get the attention they deserved.
But this next part—this is where things get tricky. Because what Dee is about to tell me doesn’t match up with the official history.
Sarah Hepola: So then, where does the uniform come from?
Dee Brock: Well, it really came from my imagination. I drew this sketch of what I thought it should look like.
The uniform. The one in the Smithsonian. This would be the moment when the cheerleaders as we know them came to be.
Dee Brock: Well, I wanted it to have more of a cowboy look and I wanted it to be sexy.
And remember how Bubbles Cash electrified Dallas wearing a miniskirt? This is just five years later. Would the cheerleaders, in hot pants and crop tops, be too sexy?
Dee Brock: I admit they are sexy, but so many things that we like about our lives are sexy. So why would one want to criticize a healthy, sexy attitude? It just floors me.
So. She says she sketched out this uniform on a yellow notepad.
Dee Brock: And I took it to a dressmaker that Tex Schramm knew.
Sarah Hepola: Is that Paula Van Wagoner?
Dee Brock: Yes.
And the rest, as they say—is a totally confusing mess.
Sarah Hepola: Paula! Hi! I’m so sorry I’m late.
Paula Van Wagoner: No, that’s okay.
I visited Paula at her apartment in Dallas. She met me at the door in a Cowboys jersey with a sparkly number on the front.
Paula Van Wagoner: And each cheerleader had their rookie year on it.
Sarah Hepola: Hey, yours says seventy-two. ’Cause that’s your alumni year.
Paula Van Wagoner: Yeah.
If you Google who designed the cheerleaders’ uniform, the answer you get is Paula Van Wagoner. Paula grew up in Dallas. She danced on the drill team in high school—Thomas Jefferson, the same school where Dee had taught. As a girl, Paula dreamed of being a designer.
Paula Van Wagoner: Even as a child, I would go out in the yard and pull petals off flowers and leaves and sew them together and make dolls’ clothes.
After graduating, she went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She came back to Dallas, where she lived with three other young women in a two-bedroom apartment, and she landed a job designing clothes for an apparel company called Lorch.
Lester Melnick, a Dallas retail giant who also happened to be golfing buddies with Tex Schramm, connected Schramm with Van Wagoner’s boss.
Paula Van Wagoner: And my boss came in and said, “Do you want to design a uniform for the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders?” And I said, “Sure.”
I wanted to know how she remembered the uniform coming together.
Paula Van Wagoner: Well, first we went out to talk to Dee Brock and Tex Schramm with the Cowboys; they gave me an idea of what they wanted, which was, these would not be cheerleaders. These would be beautiful dancing girls. And they wanted them to be sexy, but they wanted them to be in good taste.
By the way, Paula made two uniforms in 1972. One had a swishy white fringe skirt and a long-sleeved turtleneck, but that version never made it past the first few years. The other one—well, it became one of the most recognizable uniforms of the late twentieth century. Paula says she spent two days working up the designs, and brought the finished product to the Cowboys. I asked what inspired her.
Paula Van Wagoner: I was really lucky because it fit in with the times. That was a time of shorts and go-go boots. And then the cowboy influence was the stars and the vest and the blue and white. For Texas, it just fit in with the times.
Where this story gets tense is who first sketched those uniforms. Dee says she showed up to that meeting with her sketch, and gave it to Paula—but Paula doesn’t remember it that way.
Sarah Hepola: So, I’m going to read you what she said so that you can respond to it. Okay?
Paula Van Wagoner: Okay.
Sarah Hepola: So she says, “It really came from my imagination. I drew this sketch of what it should look like . . .
Dee Brock: . . . And I took it to a dress maker that Tex Schramm knew. So I went to see her and I had, I drew some things on a yellow notepad. But my sketch was of these . . .
Sarah Hepola: . . . two uniforms. Okay, so, can you respond to that?
Paula Van Wagoner: No.
Sarah Hepola: Can, can you tell me anything more?
Paula Van Wagoner: Um, it just didn’t happen that way.
As I dug further into this, I discovered that, over the decades, the story of who first hatched the uniform has actually shifted. A newspaper story from 1979 calls Paula the sole designer. But Dee gets credit for the sketch in the Cowboys’ own official history book from 2010, called America’s Team, and in Joe Nick’s book from 2012. And then, some sources just pass it off to Tex Schramm or Lester Melnick, like no women were involved whatsoever. Paula says a few different people have claimed credit over the years.
Paula Van Wagoner: Even on Wikipedia, there is a designer that I used to work with that was still claiming that she designed the cheerleader uniform, and the cheerleaders would go in and change it to my name. And within a week it would be changed to her name again.
Part of what makes this so hard to decipher is that nobody knew they were making history at the time. People can hardly agree on what happened yesterday, and this is fifty years ago. That uniform became priceless, but once upon a time, it was just another day’s work.
Sarah Hepola: Do you remember how much you got paid for this?
Paula Van Wagoner: Oh, nothing. Nothing, ever.
Sarah Hepola: Wait a minute. Wait.
Paula Van Wagoner: That was part of my job. No, I never got paid anything for it.
Sarah Hepola: I’m going to have to take a minute. [laughs]
You’ll have to excuse that laugh, but that’s the sound of me realizing that the uniform—the one that brought glamour and sizzle to the super-brand that is the Dallas Cowboys and launched a wave of imitations across sports and fashion—the Cowboys got it for free.
Paula Van Wagoner: If I’d gotten paid a penny for each one over the years . . .
Paula didn’t share my frustration about this.
Sarah Hepola: It strikes me what’s sort of made worse—not worse, but, like, harder to untangle, is the Cowboys themselves not giving you guys credit, you ladies credit, for what you were doing in the first place. It seems like it would have been made easier if they had called it, you know, a design by Paula Van Wagoner from the beginning.
Paula Van Wagoner: But I believe what they really wanted was, they copyrighted it, so it was their design. And they still have the copyright on it.
Sarah Hepola: And we can argue about who designed it, but we can say that neither of you got paid.
Paula Van Wagoner: Right. So they never needed to give any credit to anybody.
Paula says after she handed them the uniform that would shape their brand, she had no contact with the Cowboys for more than forty years. She left fashion design, which she found stressful, and started a needlepoint company. Once, she read in the paper that the cheerleaders were looking for uniforms to wear during the winter, and she reached out to someone at the Cowboys to offer her services.
Sarah Hepola: And what happened?
Paula Van Wagoner: Well, I didn’t hear anything from them.
Sarah Hepola: They have a way of not responding to people.
Paula Van Wagoner: Yeah.
But in 2016, Paula was brought back into the fold. Her niece Inga, who was a Cowboys cheerleader in 1995, had been advocating on her behalf, and Paula was celebrated at a big alumni bash, where she finally got to hear directly from cheerleaders who told her what that uniform meant. The team honored someone else that night, too: Dee Brock. Perhaps it was dawning on the organization that honoring these two pioneers was long overdue. But of course there was still this one problem. The two pioneers had competing storylines.
And so in 2018, when the Smithsonian event rolled around, Paula Van Wagoner was the one on that stage. She flew up in Jerry Jones’s private jet . . .
Paula Van Wagoner: It was beautiful. It was beautiful.
Sarah Hepola: What’s inside?
Paula Van Wagoner: Pictures of Cowboys. It was very spacious. Nice jet.
. . . and found herself at the center of a press bonanza.
Paula Van Wagoner: In fact, there was—when we were all up on the stage, when it finished, it was press from everywhere sitting down in front of us. Strange feeling; I’ve never been through anything like that before. And then we got back on the plane and flew back home.
For a woman who never expected much from that assignment, this was a payment money couldn’t touch.
Paula Van Wagoner: I think the thing that has always struck me is to sit down and design one thing in a very short amount of time that lasts fifty years. What are the chances of doing that? And then for it to also end up in the Smithsonian after forty-eight years. When people say it’s an honor, it really is an honor.
Dee wasn’t invited to the Smithsonian. She was gracious about this, but I find it hard to believe the woman whose enterprising work paved the way for the modern cheerleader era wouldn’t be on that stage—especially when, for some reason, the man who designed the cheerleaders’ belt buckles was.
I reached out to the Cowboys to find out more about this, but they didn’t want to participate in this podcast.
We may never know exactly how this happened. Many of the people who witnessed this moment have passed away. Tex Schramm died in 2003. A woman named Leveta Crager, who stitched the uniforms at home for 24 years, using patterns cut from Kroger bags, she died in 2003 as well.
I did speak to one other person who was around back then.
Sarah Hepola: And what’s your understanding of who designed that uniform?
Vonciel Baker: Uh, Dee Brock.
This is Vonciel Baker. You’ll remember her from the first episode—one of the original seven cheerleaders in 1972.
Sarah Hepola: Do you remember her sketching it?
Vonciel Baker: Yes. I sure do. I mean, she’d just sit there, one day, we were rehearsing with Texie, and she would have a yellow notepad, you know, legal notepad, and was just doing stuff, and she would turn the page, and she would sit there like this. And one time she went, “Hmm.”
I asked her why nobody else I interviewed told me this story.
Vonciel Baker: They weren’t there.
Our stories get lost, and embellished, and twisted around. What my own years in journalism have shown me is that we’re all unreliable narrators.
Vonciel Baker: Is she still alive?
Sarah Hepola: She is.
Vonciel Baker: I wish you could convey that to her after this.
Sarah Hepola: I will.
Vonciel Baker: How I feel about her, and what she taught me as a young lady, and that I said who actually sketched it. And you should let her know, every time, every time I was interviewed and they asked about the uniform, I said, “Dee Brock.”
Sarah Hepola: And what do they say?
Vonciel Baker: They say, “Oh, we haven’t heard of her.” I say, “Well, she did it in 1972. That’s where it came from. It came from her heart and her soul. I saw her sketching it.”
Sarah Hepola: Vonciel, how did this, how did this history get lost?
Vonciel Baker: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Art and commerce are filled with these disputes. Who made what; who gets the credit. What part is inspiration, and what part the creation itself?
Dee left the cheerleaders around 1975, and moved to Washington, D.C. She became a senior vice president at PBS. She was developing ways to teach classes on the TV screen—something that strikes me as very ahead of its time in this Zoom era, when classrooms are mostly screens. She followed the cheerleaders’ meteoric rise over the years, but at a distance.
Sarah Hepola: Have you ever watched the reality show?
Dee Brock: No.
Sarah Hepola: Did you know that there was a reality show?
Dee Brock: No.
Sarah Hepola: Yeah. Yeah. It’s been on for fifteen years, actually.
Dee Brock: What is a reality show?
Sometimes I worried I was bothering Dee with all my questions. She taught so many students, she raised three boys, and the lady with the microphone keeps asking about the cheerleaders. But I wanted so badly to reconcile this unresolved history.
Dee Brock: I just made the sketches, and they couldn’t have moved forward without a beginning, but it is just the beginning. I mean, it was just a sketch. And so she was very talented in being able to take that sketch and come up with patterns of really cute uniforms.
Sarah Hepola: Um, clearly I’m moved.
I offered to play the tape of my interview with Paula, so Dee could respond. But she didn’t want to hear it.
Dee Brock: I’m afraid if I hear what she says that it will just make me feel sad.
I don’t want to pit these two women against each other, any more than they want to be pitted against each other. I’d been chasing the question of who made those uniforms, but at some point I realized maybe that’s not even the right question. Maybe the question goes more like this: why were two women so instrumental in building this image—an image that the Cowboys fought to protect, that they sued over and profited massively from—why were these two women scrapping for recognition in the first place? It’s like the Cowboys had outsourced all the work, and kept all the glory.
I asked Dee how much she was paid for her years with the cheerleaders. We did some quick back-of-the-envelope math and determined it was less than $10,000 total. For starting the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and leading them for more than a dozen years.
Sarah Hepola: It seems to me that you were a little under-compensated.
Dee Brock: Just a little. I was definitely under-compensated, except for the fact that I love doing it.
Sarah Hepola: I know.
Dee Brock: So, I would have done it for nothing.
I heard these words from a lot of women I interviewed: “I would have done it for nothing.” The Cowboys became the most powerful and lucrative name in sports. And those women were proud to have played a role. It’s no small thing to be a part of history—but it’s about time that history gives them their due.
Next time on America’s Girls . . .
Debbie Bond Hansen: I’d be—I’m having a rehearsal at the dance studio, and Jerry Jones would come down with his friends and his cocktails, and clinking the ice, watching the girls, you know, rehearse.
Dale Hansen: And it wasn’t to learn the latest dance step. It wasn’t to learn what the halftime routine was going to look like.
Debbie Bond Hansen: And it was just—oh, I’m just like, “Oh, gosh, this is not like the old days.”