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Leotard's Legacy

In the late 1860s, aerialist Jules Léotard debuted a costume in performance (Airoldi, 2011) that would go on to become an essential and iconic garment for not only circus arts, but also other sports such as gymnastics, dance, and ice skating. The leotard is a tightly fitted, knit garment that is cut high on the legs and covers the torso up and over the shoulders and is now an eponymous object intrinsically linked to its inventor. While the original leotard featured range of motion and close body fit, these elements improved drastically with the invention of Lycra spandex fibers in the mid-20th century, and leotards were adopted into fashion in the 1970s (Women's Wear Daily, n.d.). In this portion of the exhibition, the history and evolution of this iconic garment is explored along the spectrum of costume design and end-use as an essential activewear item.

Images of Jules Léotard

Leotard Design Considerations

Direction of stretch is an important consideration in the construction of leotards. Horizontal stretch places the greatest stretch circumferentially around the body such as at the waist, and vertical stretch allows for more movement through flexion and extension of the torso. While this is an important consideration in circus costumes, it is essential to consider the performer's act and movements as well as the environment. In some cases, vertical stretch can impede rather than assist the performance. In the quote below, costume designer and technician Belinda Long-Hodsden recounts a cautionary tale involving a circus show with a water feature:

They [the design team] cut all of these leotards with the stretch going [vertically] up and down, and in our opening night, these beautiful women in these white velvet leotards with skirts hanging off the back of them got out of the water and all their crotches were at their ankles... They had to rebuild all of them the very next day, cut across the body.

Belinda Long-Hodsden

Leotards from the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection

Purple Thong Leotard, Side View
 Purple Thong Leotard, Back View
Purple Thong Leotard with Shorts, Front View
Purple Thong Leotard with Shorts, Back View

“Designed to Perform”

As performers are highly trained to control their body movements, it is rightly so that they are highly sensitive to the nature of their body-hugging garments. Mikhail Baryshnikov, world-renowned Latvian dancer and designer of this purple floral leotard, was no stranger to the real needs of dancers and performers alike. Fitting the motto of the label, “Designed to Perform”, Baryshnikov Bodywear utilizes new fabric textures and blends, carefully curated for performer essentials: leotard, unitard, cover-up, and tights (The Oklahoman, 1987). The designer claims “some of the new blends have a higher percentage of cotton to provide better absorption and evaporation of perspiration... the ultra nylon and ribbed nylon flatter the figure with more control and luster... (and) the tights are made of twice as much Lycra as used in most lines, creating a sleek fit but with flexibility” (The Oklahoman, 1987). Though none too different from the original “leotard” silhouette, function-focused textile innovation can be revolutionary.

Zebra Thong Leotard, Front View
 Zebra Thong Leotard, Side View
Zebra Thong Leotard, Back View
Zebra Thong Leotard, Detail View

Leotards to Legwarmers: Exercise Fashion in the 80s

The fitness craze of the 1980s brought the leotards from out of the performance arts and into the brief period of fashionable aerobics- though “athleisure” has become a modern trend for wearing athletic apparel outside of the gym. Paired with brightly-colored (and perhaps matching) leg warmers, this neon green leotard would have been worn by many at the weekly Jazzercize class. In addition to the influence of stars like Jane Fonda, the 80s saw a social aspect to working out that caused activewear to have a fashionable aspect (Lee, n.d.). Expanding on the basic leotard, exercise fashion began to include brightly colored tights and uniquely styled unitards- some, even making the basis of new lines of “ready-to-wear exercise clothing”(Hamilton, 2020)! A particular aspect of the trend that made it successful was the natural tendency for stretch fabrics to maintain their fitted shape, even after many washes (Hamilton, 2020). Thus, from the requirements of high-performance acts to the fashions of recreational exercise, the leotard slowly makes its way into daily casual wear.

Black Turtleneck Leotard, Side View
Black Turtleneck Leotard, Back View
Black Turtleneck Leotard

The Power (Body)Suit

"In recent years, there has been an undeniable growth in the defiance of gender norms and inequality by women, and this is clearly reflected in the most telling cultural staple of all–fashion” (Hechikoff, 2019). The bodysuit has recently taken on the uniform of many powerful women. Matching the sexual empowerment of the dominatrix, female singers and performers have proudly worn the skin-tight garment while reclaiming topics that were once taboo. Apart from the extravagant variations depicted in Cardi B’s WAP, bodysuits like the one pictured on the right have become a contemporary closet staple: sexy but not revealing. Timeless. Easy to wear. Though this leotard is from the 1980s, bodysuits in this style currently sit in the closets of many. Worn with a pair of “mom jeans”, the black turtleneck bodysuit becomes an illusory body-hugging shirt that stays tucked in. In becoming the model garment for female figures or balancing classic aesthetics and the needs of contemporary trends, the leotard-turned-bodysuit is ever-evolving but still as powerful.

The Leotard in Works of Art

"“It wasn’t the daringness of the performance nor the tricks or the gimmicks: it was the fantastic balance in motion that the performers exhibited.” -Alexander Calder

Ring to Runway: The Leotard

While the leotard’s beginnings may have developed from the circus arts, as a functional activewear item, the leotard is part of the foundational wardrobe for any artistic sport such as dance, gymnastics, or (with more rules governing what is appropriate or not to wear in competition) figure skating. However, this iconic garment has also bridged from activewear to fashion and entertainment: designers Cushnie et Ochs featured a long-sleeved, high cut leotard on their Spring 2016 runway, and in the same year Courrèges showcased collection pieces atop white, long-sleeved rib-knit leotards in their Ready-to-Wear collection. These types of leotards become standalone pieces or bases that act as a blank canvas in fashion while providing the freedom of movement and the comfort of activewear. However, the leotards in fashion runways are not always portrayed as basic pieces for the everyday wardrobe: Fashion designer Gareth Pugh’s Fall 2006 Ready-to-Wear line was comprised of theatrical, over the top garments with overt circus influences including a gold and black Harlequin-influenced diamond pattern on a long-sleeved leotard that was styled with a tall conical cap and large ruffled collar. In this design, the circus influence is evidenced by not only the symbolism of the clown, but also through the use of the leotard silhouette.

Entertainers have widely used the leotard as costume for performance. Grace Jones’s villainous character “May Day” wore a leotard in the 1985 James Bond Film “A View to a Kill”, as did Madonna in her 2005 “Hung Up” music video, Beyoncé in her iconic “Single Ladies” music video, and Lizzo’s embellished leotards are a staple of her performance wardrobe. The humble leotard has remained an activewear staple, become an essential part of any fashion wardrobe, and cemented its place as costume to the stars - although the inventor is long deceased, Jules Léotard’s legacy lives on in his eponymous garment.

For source information, please see the References page under the Final Bows tab.