A child ballet dancer wearing a modern design of leotard

A leotard is a skin-tight one-piece garment that covers the torso and body but leaves the legs free. It was made famous by the French acrobatic performer Jules Léotard (1839–1870), about whom the song "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" was written.

Leotards are worn by acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, thespians, and circus performers both as practice garments and performance costumes. They are often worn together with tights. There are sleeveless, short-sleeved and long-sleeved leotards. A variation is the unitard, which also covers the legs.

Leotards are entered through the neck. (Contrast with bodysuits, which generally have snaps at the crotch, allowing the garment to be pulled on over the head.) Scoop-necked leotards have wide neck openings and are held in place by the elasticity of the garment. Others are crew necked or polo necked and close at the back of the neck with a zipper or snaps.

Use

Leotards are commonly worn in figure skating, modern dance, traditional ballet and gymnastics, especially by young children. Practice leotards are usually sleeveless; competition garments for gymnastics and skating are almost always long-sleeved.

Many leotards are cut high enough above the legs that they expose underwear. For this reason, underwear is often omitted, or special underwear, cut high on the waist, is worn. Many dance studios forbid underwear[citation needed]. Gymnastics judges can deduct points for visible underwear[citation needed].

History

An image of Jules Léotard in the garment that bears his name

The first known use of the name leotard came only in 1886, many years after Léotard's death. Léotard himself called the garment a maillot, which in French has now come to mean a swimsuit. In the early 20th century, leotards were mainly confined to circus and acrobatic shows, worn by the specialists who performed these acts.

The 1920s and 1930s saw leotards influencing the style of bathing suits, with women's bathing suits today similar in appearance to leotards. Leotards were also worn by professional dancers such as the showgirls of Broadway. Stage use of the leotard typically coordinated the garment with stockings or tights.

In the 1950s, traditionally-styled leotards continued to be worn mainly by stage performers and circus actors, but leotards began to be used as simple and functional exercise garments, often in institutional settings like schools and in fitness training. These were almost always black and worn together with thick tights. Between 1950 and 1970, leotards remained as such in appearance until a style change in the 70s resulted in more colorful leotards appearing on the scene, most often in ballet and exercise.

By the late 1970's leotards had become common both as exercise and street wear, popularized by the disco craze, and aerobics fashion craze of the time. These leotards were produced in a variety of nylon and spandex materials, as well as the more traditional cotton previously used for uni-colored leotards and tights. Exercise videos by celebrities such as Jane Fonda also did much to popularize the garment. The dancewear company Danskin flourished during this period, producing a wide variety of leotards for both dance and street wear. Other companies, such as Gilda Marx, produced leotards during this time period then ceased production when they were no longer in fashion. By the late 1980's leotards for exercise wear had become little more than bikini bottoms with straps over the shoulders, generally worn with cropped shirts. By the early 1990's leotards had been almost completely replaced for exercise wear by the sports bra and shorts.

Among exercise garments, leotards may be seen along with other types of garments, such as T-shirts, crop tops and tights.

Men's leotards

When Jules Léotard created the Maillot it was initially intended for men. This style of leotard can be seen in early 20th century photos of the circus "strong man". Men's leotards evolved along with the women's style, eventually resembling it, except that the men's version had lower cut leg openings and a much lower cut front. In addition, when worn for ballet the man generally wears his tights over the leotard, while woman dancers wear their tights under their leotards. The popularity of leotards in women's fashion during the late 1970's caused a gradual decline in their use by male dancers, particularly in the U.S. where this fashion trend was most visible. Despite this, several companies, including Danskin continued to produce men's leotards well into the early 1980's. Today, men's leotards are rarely worn in the U.S., though they continue to be marketed throughout Europe, where they never completely faded from use.

See also