CHICAGO — Isabelle Harrison learned how to perfect her gameday fit the hard way. She’d rush to put together an outfit and never felt very stylish.

“My outfit didn’t look good,” the Dallas Wings player says with a laugh. “I was stressed.”

There’s no more messing around the day of a game anymore. Through a little trial and error, Harrison has emerged as a fashionable WNBA star this season — one of many players who take their gameday fits seriously.

Since her earlier days in the league, Harrison learned to take time to piece together looks the night before a game, trying on different options to make a strong statement. Her favorite is an iconic Jumpman dress, which she wore to help announce a Jordan Brand collaboration. She’s worked with a stylist and has partnered with designer Kim Shui, who helps elevate Harrison’s fashion sense, makes her feel more comfortable and incorporates the Jordan brand into her looks.

Harrison strutted across the orange carpet in her latest Kim Shui and Jordan collab Friday night to open All-Star Game weekend in Chicago. She wore a gold brocade shrug-like top with puffy cuffs above the wrists on top of a Jordan crop, pairing it with black shades, silver earrings and a Jumpman necklace. All-Stars like Sue Bird in a Saint Laurant blazer and Candace Parker wearing an olive green silk suit, along with invited player guests such as Harrison, reveled in praise they heard on the orange carpet: “You look good!” “What are you wearing?”

Those phrases have become more common as players like Harrison have increasingly turned pregame tunnel entrances into runway walks. Some WNBA teams literally roll out red carpets and pull out all the stops with smoke and mood lighting before games to create an atmosphere that showcases players’ style. Photos of their ensembles are often well-circulated on social media, creating conversations beyond the game.

There’s added cultural capital associated with style choices. In a league that has long engaged in activism and breaking barriers, players are increasingly recognized for expressing themselves through fashion. Among the usual sports reporters at the All-Star Game, GQ, Vogue and People magazines were issued credentials. Media outlets, including The Athletic, publish frequent style rankings from the WNBA (among other sports).

“What’s so beautiful about the WNBA is the diversity and the different personalities,” says Bird, a 15-year veteran who will retire at the end of the season. “Fashion, clothing, if you’re into that, is one way to express that. For a long time, I think our league was trying to fit into boxes. And those boxes were really limiting. And I’m actually probably one of the best examples because who knows what I would have been wearing if I’d been able to break out. … But here we are now.”

During Bird’s early years in the league, the WNBA’s looks were comparatively bland. The league also promoted a stereotypically feminized portrait of players in the beginning, which constricted players and marketed a heteronormative image.

The WNBA’s dress code was button-down similar to the NBA’s, which instituted rules in 2005 requiring business casual attire on gamedays — a policy many criticized as racist because it replaced popular streetwear of the time like baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts. NBA players twisted the rule in a way that still allowed self-expression, elevating their pregame looks to couture fashion shows and gradually forcing the NBA to relax its style policing.

The WNBA’s style evolution also mirrors its progress. The league has become arguably the most welcoming of sports in its attitudes toward gender and sexual orientation. That matches how players are welcome to express themselves, including stylistically. Now, players rock their pregame entrances into arenas wearing everything from Jordan And-1s to spiked heels, from leather miniskirts to stylish suits.

“We know that we can show up to the game in whatever we want,” Storm star Breanna Stewart says. “But we want to make sure that you know you look good, you feel good, you play good.”

WNBA players often incorporate social causes into their fashion. Many used #SayHerName as part of style choices, wore T-shirts to support political candidates and, recently, have worn clothes that show support for Mercury star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in a Russian prison since February.

Many are also thoughtful about the brands they support.

Nneka Ogwumike, a star for the L.A. Sparks, says she arrives so early to games that the team’s social media crew might not even have its cameras rolling to capture her look. But like Harrison, she selects her clothes the night before games and chooses outfits based on how she feels. She loves supporting independent, Black-owned and women-owned brands, and she often incorporates messages into her style choices. On Friday, Ogwumike sported a bright pink mini with Grecian inspired matching heels with straps that laced up to her knees, designed by the Black woman-owned business Taller Than Your Average.

“As athletes, we’re constantly out there exuding what’s inside … physically and athletically, and for us to be able to kind of divert that to a more creative outlet that I guess resonates more with like entertainment and industry, I think it’s huge,” Ogwumike says. “Especially for women and especially for the WNBA. There’s such a broad spectrum of expressions, and I think it’s lovely to see different people’s styles and how that can inspire and influence other people.”

Of course, not every player is a fashionista. Some tried to escape the bright lights of Friday’s orange carpet. Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas was one of those who admitted fashion was not her forte and the attention made her a little uncomfortable — and made it tough to decide what to wear. She wore a fitted blue and white plaid suit and white Alexander McQueen sneakers.  “I have my own style,” Thomas says. “Just keep it simple. Whatever is comfortable really for me.”

Jonquel Jones, last season’s MVP, enjoys looking fresh and has grown to embrace the fashion aspect of the game, sometimes rolling into the tunnel on a Onewheel. But finding well-fitted clothing for her 6-foot-6 frame is tough. Jones sported an Express outfit at All-Star weekend and likes wearing ASOS, but she says pants and long sleeve shirts are difficult fits to find, so she’s proactive on getting the right measurements and placing online orders.

Bird has embraced fashion and looked beyond her comfort zone. Crediting fiancé and soccer star Megan Rapinoe as her previous closet consultant, Bird has begun working with stylist Courtney Mays to shape her looks.

“What’s really fun is you might see a pair of leather pants and be like, ‘Ohhh, I don’t know,’” Bird says. “And then you put them on, you get comfortable and all of sudden, it’s like you open your eyes into a whole other aspect of your clothing. So I think what’s good about my outfit (Friday) is I’m not sure I would have picked it out on my own, but now that I have it on it feels like I’ve owned this for my entire life.”

Amadi Brooks first attended the 2019 All-Star Game in Las Vegas as a styling assistant. Brooks, who is also a wardrobe consultant, noticed at Chicago’s All-Star Game how the WNBA fashion scene had grown just by running into other stylists who were there with players.

“It’s cool to see that the players feel comfortable enough and feel like it’s at that level now to extend their brand by hiring a stylist and trusting someone else to put them in what they present themselves to the world in,” Brooks said.

Chicago marked Brooks’ first WNBA All-Star weekend working with her own clientele and brand.  Designer JT reached out to Brooks for tips to style rookie Rhyne Howard with his custom letterman jacket, which honored Kentucky guard and Howard’s friend Terrence Clarke who died in a car accident last year. Styling Howard involved Facetime calls, with Brooks getting a feel for Howard’s vision and comfort level. Howard told Brooks she liked singer Aaliyah’s vibe, and that feminine-tomboy aesthetic was reflected in Howard’s crop top, heels and Chicago-based and Black-owned brand GRÉVYI’s unisex pant.

Though styling is about personal expression, it’s also an opportunity for branding. Athletes, especially WNBA players, often make more money from endorsements than their playing contracts, so presenting themselves as marketable and creating social media buzz is monumentally important. Brooks sees the influence that sports and fashion have on each other as an untapped market that could bring more attention to the league. She has observed how other leagues highlight fashion highlighted and how athletes’ partnerships with brands create marketing opportunities.

Brooks understands that fashion crosses gender conformity, but she says ignoring women athletes as a marketing opportunity is short-sighted. “When you initially think of fashion, you think of women,” says Brooks, who played basketball at Eastern Kentucky. “I think it’s such a big missed opportunity that a lot more of these brands aren’t partnering with these women, and I think that this is such a great time for it, and to have stylists who know fashion and know these upcoming brands, to put them in a platform for a WNBA player wearing your looks, it can branch off to so many more things.”

Kristine Anigwe formerly played with Skylar Diggins-Smith as a Phoenix Mercury teammate. Now Diggins-Smith collaborates with Anigwe for style. “This year, I really tried to find my baseline fashion, like my grown-up swag I guess, if you will,” Diggins-Smith says. She’s stepped out of her comfort zone, creating a chic, oversized yet tailored and futuristic-inspired neutral look. She went full matrix on Friday orange carpet, wearing an all-black ensemble complete with a long leather trench and skinny sunnies.

Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale also took strides to personalize her style for the orange carpet with Anigwe’s assistance. She wore a custom-made pewter-toned two-piece set, accessorized with Saint Laurent sunglasses and a No. 24 chain.

The increased focus on fashion helps bring attention to the WNBA through a different avenue. For Parker, the attention to the orange carpet alone signifies change.

“I remember walking in and there was like one person clicking a picture, and now we’re here and that’s super special,” Parker says. “Even the events surrounding it. Now it’s multiple days, before it was like you arrived and it was practice and then it was (the game). So just to see the growth and where it’s going. I mean, we want to make this big and regardless of whether you know I’m playing or not like I’m going to come to WNBA All-Star and this is going to be the main event for women’s basketball.”

(Top photo of Isabelle Harrison: Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)