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Making History: Paula Van Wagoner Honored

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Forty-six years ago when she put pen-to-paper to sketch what would become an iconic piece of American pop culture, fashion designer Paula Van Wagoner had no idea that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders uniform she created would officially become part of history. 

Fast-forward from 1972 to 2018 and a copy of Van Wagoner’s original sketch, plus two DCC uniforms, are now part of The Smithsonian’s collection inside The National Museum of American History.

Van Wagoner was an important part of the February 26th ceremony in Washington D.C. when the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders officially donated DCC artifacts, including Van Wagoner’s work, to the director and curators of The Smithsonian.

“It’s hard to put into words, it was almost overwhelming, especially to see the curator of the museum talking about our designs and being in the Smithsonian, it was fantastic,” says Van Wagoner.  “To have done something 46 years ago that culminated in a bunch of women wearing the same clothes for 46 years, and I’m in The Smithsonian?  Wow!  It was so unexpected and such an honor.”

“Unexpected” is a key word for Van Wagoner.  After all, she was going about her everyday work back in 1972 when she was asked to take on an extra assignment.

“The uniforms were started in 1972 when I was a fashion designer, when I mainly designed junior sportswear and junior dresses,” Van Wagoner recalls.  “My boss came in one day and said, ‘Do you want to design a uniform for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I got requests like that from different organizations all the time, so I didn’t think anything about it.

“The reason I designed them was Lester Melnick, who had a big store here in Dallas, was a good friend of Tex Schramm (Dallas Cowboys team president/general manager). They were golfing buddies. And then Lester Melnick’s other good friend was my boss. So it just kind of came down that way. 

“The first thing we had to do was meet with the proper people. Dee Brock (director, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders) and Tex Schramm were there. And I said, ‘Well, what do you want?’

“They said, number one, these are going to be dancing girls so they have to be able to move. Number two, it’s got to be a western theme to go with a Cowboys’ theme.  Number three, it’s got to be sexy, but then it’s got to be in good taste.

“So I came up with the idea and we went back and met a second time. And I remember walking in the room and they said, ‘Well, who’s going to put it on? We need to see what it looks like’. So I said, ‘Okay’. So I was the first person to ever wear it!”

The design that would eventually land Van Wagoner in The Smithsonian took a short time to complete.

“I think it was two days it took me to come up with the design.  Probably the inspiration for it was, that’s when hot pants and go-go boots were so popular.” she says with a laugh.  “The bolero jacket and the stars were the western element.  That’s when we went back (to meet with the Cowboys) and said, ‘What do you think?’ There were actually two different uniforms that fit together.”

Wait a minute!  There were originally two separate DCC uniforms in 1972?

“There were two of them and they could mix and match the parts.  One of them was just fringe and a belt that was worn over a body suit. But the fringe got ratty looking, so they dropped that. But since that first year in 1972, it’s been just the one.”

In 1972, after watching the DCC perform at the then recently-opened Texas Stadium in their new uniforms, Van Wagoner would never have predicted that five decades later they would still be wearing her design, much less have her creation as part of The Smithsonian’s collection.

“No, not at all,” Van Wagoner says with a laugh.  “It wasn’t any big deal, it was just another assignment.  I thought it would probably be that year and then they’d come up with another design the next year. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would last this long! 

“But one other little story: About 1970 my best friend and I gave each other a trip to a fortune teller for our birthdays. Her name was Jessie and everyone talked about how wonderful she was. The only thing she knew about us was our first name and maybe our birth date. We went in and she talked about all these different things. I wrote everything down that I could remember she said. And then I stuck it in a box in my closet. About four years later, I was cleaning out my closet and I found that slip of paper.  And what she said in 1970 was, ‘You will design a uniform that will be known all over the world’.  I have never forgotten that.”

At the ceremony at The Smithsonian, Van Wagoner was joined by family members who flew from Dallas to Washington, D.C. to witness the historic moment when the DCC uniforms and the copy of Van Wagoner’s original sketch were deeded to the museum.  One of those family members wore Van Wagoner’s design as a member of America’s Sweethearts.

“Yes, Inga Van Wagoner is my niece and she’s a former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader (1995 squad). She’s married to my nephew. Her mother has some kind of recording when Inga was six years old. They asked her, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And she says, ‘I want to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader’.”

The opportunity to share her moment in The Smithsonian spotlight with family and friends was priceless for Van Wagoner, the thrill of a lifetime.   And when the 2018 football season kicks off in the fall, she’ll have that same feeling of pride when she sees the newest version of the DCC dancing on the field in her creation.  The feeling is also tinged with a hint of bemusement.

“I think the first year they ever wore them, 1972, was the biggest shock that they were actually in them,” Van Wagoner concedes.  “And every year after that I think ‘They still got them on!’ They’re wearing 46 -year old clothes!”

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