After men set the dress code, women have had to adapt to norms that aren’t always comfortable (or even safe) for the job they’re doing.

By Britni de la Cretaz
Updated: Apr 02, 2019 @ 5:28 pm
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Coaching basketball is an athletic endeavor; coaches stalk the sidelines, run down the court, and jump around when a call doesn't go their team's way. Watching female coaches courtside, the adage that women can do anything men can — and in heels — is never more apparent.

But of course the coaching dress code (business attire like suits, ties, and dress shoes) has been established by men. “Coaches wear suits because that’s what they do, because no one has ever bucked the trend,” Jeff Halmos of the men’s design firm Shipley & Halmos told the New York Times in 2013. Last year, according to ThinkProgress, 59.3 percent of women’s college basketball teams were coached by women, which is down from pre-Title IX numbers (the legislation actually incentivized men getting into women’s ball). But historically, even when a majority of women held these coveted jobs, they dressed in a way that mimicked their male colleagues and counterparts: in suits, but this time with heels.

As far as a formal coaching dress code, this can vary by school and league. For example, the University of Florida requires coaches to wear a suit and tie and, until a few years ago, NBA coaches were required to wear a collared shirt under a suit jacket. In recent years, some men have been losing the ties. But the more women establish themselves in the field — and, per a report in the journal SPORT last year, reach pay parity there — the more they’re making its version of workwear their own.

Watch the sidelines of a Women’s March Madness or WNBA game, and you’re bound to see a coach making a fashion statement, whether it’s Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame with a bright green scarf, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley’s thick-framed glasses and leather top, or Baylor’s Kim Mulkey and the bright orange suit she wore for Monday night’s Elite Eight victory. When a player pulls on their jersey, they know it’s showtime. Similarly, coaches are putting on their own version of a game-day uniform. Many wear sweats and sneakers 90 percent of the time, and say getting dressed up for a game helps put them in the right mental space.

“I love to dress for games because I know for two hours, I can be this very feminine but very powerful, passionate person,” says Nicki Collen, head coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, who's pictured above in the bright-pink skirt and strappy sandals. “I don’t know if I could do it every day, nine to five, so I love the balance of what I get to do” — which means Lululemon leggings, a Dream T-shirt, and sneakers most of the time, and shift dresses and heels during primetime.

Dana "Pokey" Chatman, head coach of the Indiana Fever, looks on during an August 23, 2017 WNBA game against New York Liberty. Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

For some coaches, like Collen, the look includes sky-high stilettos. “Perhaps it’s the 5’5 person in me,” which can be a head and shoulders below the players in her huddle, “but I’ll always be in at least three-inch heels.” Collen says her level of discomfort depends on the shoes (her go-to brands are Aldo, Sam Edelman, and BCBGeneration), but she’s also used a particularly aspirational pair as motivation before. “I made a personal bet with myself that if we made the playoffs during my first year [as Dream coach] I was going to buy Christian Louboutins,” she says. When it actually happened and the Dream played the Washington Mystics in a five-game playoff series last season, Collen got to make good. But courtside Louboutins were not all they were cracked up to be. “I was more tortured that night than any other night. But I looked great!”

And while you might expect a coach to take the “no pain, no gain” approach to footwear, Collen isn’t the only one who set aside certain heels after risking bodily harm on the court. Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has plantar fasciitis — an inflammation of tissue in the heel of the foot — in part from wearing dressy but unsupportive shoes. Former high school coach Caroline T. Patti says she once stomped her foot to express her displeasure at an official’s call and ended up tearing her peroneal tendon, which left her in a walking boot and requiring extensive physical therapy. It’s no wonder some coaches are known to keep sneakers behind the bench.

For many coaches, and women in male-dominated fields more generally, heels are a key part of creating an authoritative and professional image. “High heels may technically be a voluntary clothing item, but there are so many instances in a woman’s life when she is compelled to wear them in order to communicate something about herself, authority and formality being the most common,” says Summer Brennan, author of the book High Heel, out this March from Bloomsbury Academic, which examines the shoe’s role in society and gendered expectations around footwear.

“[Regular] high heel wear is… about wanting to be seen as appropriate — specifically, as appropriately dressed up.” Indeed, University of Connecticut associate head coach Chris Dailey, whose team will make their record setting 12th straight Final Four appearance on Friday, says that is her number one priority when she chooses her game clothing. She stresses two words in particular to describe her look: “professional” and “appropriate.” In other words, “not something you would wear to a club.”

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To hit that balance, some coaches will consult a stylist, like Shyra Ely-Gash, a former WNBA player who has worked with UNC Chapel Hill coach Tanisha Wright, and styled Arizona coach Adia Barnes for this year’s March Madness (spot the blue suede pumps in that Facebook photo). For others, it's as simple as establishing your own work uniform. As head coach of Santa Clara High School’s basketball team in California, one of the many positions Patti held in her nearly two decades of coaching, she says her courtside clothing served the same purpose as anyone else’s Monday-through-Friday attire. She wanted to look professional and bring authority to her job. “Even though I was never instructed to wear certain clothes or dress in a certain way, I used clothes and heels as a way to present myself as someone who was to be taken seriously.”

Of course in sports history it has been male coaches who have set the bar of what it means to be taken seriously in this line of work; they chose the wardrobe, and women have had to adapt to clothing norms that may or may not be comfortable for the job they’re doing.

“Women are always critiqued on how they look whereas men aren’t,” says Charmin Smith, Associate Head Coach at University of California, Berkeley. “Men can come out in a pair of slacks and shirt and tie and no one’s going to comment. Women are always judged on how they look and their appearance, and I do think there is a pressure that the critique surrounding you is positive. It doesn't affect your ability to coach the game, but it is the way our society works and it's something we have to deal with.”  

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Some female coaches would rather not deal with it, opting for comfort — without sacrificing style. Smith leans on blazers with popped collars to achieve a less overtly feminine aesthetic. She says she borrowed her look from Nancy Pelosi, but while the Speaker of the House is known to cause sellout-waves on a spendy Max Mara coat, Smith favors J.Crew for her game-day looks, and shiny Oxfords or loafers for practicality's sake. “I can’t walk in heels, therefore you will never see me in heels,” she says. Smith adds that University of Kentucky coach Niya Butts wearing Chuck Taylors (and bow ties!) on the sidelines was inspiring, and made her feel like she had permission to wear what made her comfortable, too.

As far as feedback is concerned, Smith really only cares about getting style points from her team. “The coolest thing is when you walk in for a game and you get a reaction from your players,” she says. “Then you know you’ve gotten it right.”

Of course, the fans do appreciate a coach who comes correct, style-wise. The clothes — and especially shoes — coaches show off on the sidelines have become part of the social media culture around games. The Dream’s social media team told Collen that the tweets they shared of her shoes got more engagement than anything else on their page, and Smith loves to share photos of her own footwear on the platform, as well. University of Virginia head coach Tina Thompson has an Instagram full of stylish game-day attire. This might not be as much of a draw for the men; indeed, male coaches are hardly ever asked about their pre-game fashion choices (though the New York Times did ask them about it in 2013, and Esquire sometimes features lists of best-dressed coaches during March Madness).

Smith is confident that the more women we see on the sidelines, the more courtside style will continue to evolve. “I think there are a lot more coaches in women’s basketball who are allowing themselves to step outside the box and be comfortable, or dress the way that fits their personality, and not try to fit inside this box of what we think a woman should look like when we get dressed for work,” she says. 

Lynx coach Reeve has an even more clearcut concept of what matters when it comes to her outfits: “The only thought that goes into it for me is how many wins are in it. If we lose, you’re never going to see that suit again.” Her other rule? “Never wear an opponent’s colors.”

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