The leotard has a very long history, its origins dating back to perhaps the late 17th Century. Since then it has been used by acrobats, dancers, gymnasts, and even club goers. In more modern times, however, the leotard is almost solely seen in both ballet and gymnastics. For this reason much of the second half of this article is devoted to leotards worn during gymnastics.The leotard as we now know it was popularized by the famous French acrobat Jules Leotard (1842-1870) who called the garment a 'maillot', a word meaning tight fitting garment. However, it is suggested that the leotard's true origins lie a century earlier when body stockings were favored undergarments for the popular diaphanous Roman gowns of the time. It was not until 1886 that the garment came to be called a leotard, after Leotard himself.
The leotard, as the name suggests, is a skintight garment that covers the torso but leaves the legs free. They can be sleeveless, short sleeved or long sleeved. In contrast to bodysuits, leotards are entered through the neck, allowing them to be pulled over the head. Leotards are commonly worn during ballet, yoga, traditional dance, ballet, and gymnastics.
In the early 1900's leotards were mainly used by acrobats and a variety of other circus performers. Dancers at that time wore their own form of clothing. And, as will be discussed later, male ballet dancers wore shorts over their leotards.
In the 1920's and 1930's leotards began to influence the design of bathing costumes. This style remains a favorite even today. By this time, professional dancers were also using leotards more widely. Both the showgirls of Broadway and burlesque performers in Europe could be seen in leotards as they allowed for great freedom of movement. However, there was a major difference in the color of the leotards worn by both. Showgirls tended to wear colored leotards whereas burlesque performers wore flesh colored ones.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, leotards were still largely used only by performers. However, they also found use as functional garments in institutions such as schools that used them during exercise or dance routines. Unsurprisingly, leotards remained very dull in terms of color during these decades. In the 1960's major fashion designers such as Pierre Cardin and Rudi Gernreich began making lingerie based on the leotard design.
The 1970's saw a major leap forward in both form and function. Leotards were still used during ballet and exercise routines but were now far more colorful, a reflection of the fashions of the time. Leotards now also became a form of street wear, and were worn in clubs. Leotards of the time were made of nylon, spandex, or simply cotton. Bonnie August, a designer at Danskin created some of the most fashionable leotards of the era and in fact her designs are now featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And in a look echoing the first appearance of the leotard Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks wore a black leotard, ballet shoes, and diaphanous dress on the cover of the band's Rumours album.
The late 1980's saw a major decline in the popularity of the leotard for both popular fashion and exercise. Within the next decade the leotard was superseded as a form of sportswear by the sports bra and shorts. However, ballet artists and gymnasts in particular continue to use leotards for both practice, and during competition. Practice leotards are usually sleeveless. Female competition leotards are nearly always long sleeved. Male leotards may be either, however the sleeveless variety is more common in gymnastics. It is also worth noting that long sleeved leotards also help to keep muscles warm, which helps to avoid injury. Gymnasts and ballet dancers also often wear leg warmers during practice for the same purpose.
The high leg cut of the leotard has the potential to expose underwear. As a result, gymnasts wear high waisted underwear or none at all. In fact, gymnastics judges may deduct points for visible underwear.
As dancers and other performers are aware, freedom of movement is extremely important. The same is true for gymnasts, across virtually all disciplines. As such, the tight fit provided by the leotard makes it the perfect functional garment. However, the leotard does offer its own aesthetic benefits. Being so tight fitting it perfectly demonstrates the impressive physiques of the gymnasts. Colored leotards also make for more attractive artistic routines.
The earliest leotards were usually made from nylon or cotton. Unsurprisingly, modern leotards are made from comfortable flexible materials such as Lycra and Spandex.
Of course leotards are worn by both men and women. Women's leotards are often designed to be more stylish and as mentioned, may feature a variety of striking colors, or decorative items such as glitter and even rhinestones. Men's leotards tend to be far more plain. Men's leotards are also cut in a different way to women's with a lower cut over both the groin and chest area. Male gymnasts also often wear shorts over their leotards.
The necessity for modesty for men who wear leotards was highlighted by a ballet performance in Russia during the early 1900s. At the time, male ballet dancers wore shorts, or trunks over their leotards, during performances. However, during one performance Vaslav Nijinsky appeared without his trunks. The czarina, who was seated very close to the stage was extremely shocked by the sight of him.
The long history and many uses of the leotard make it a very interesting garment to study, and certainly much has been written about it over the years. It has come a long way since Jules Leotard fist used it during an acrobatics routine. Perhaps the most interesting fact about the leotard is that is has changed so little over the years. This is because it is very successful as a functional piece of clothing. In fact, probably few pieces of clothing do match its success. Therefore, it is very likely that it will feature in ballet and gymnastics routines well into the future.