History of the Leotard

The first piece of dance clothes a child will wear, is a tiny piece of fabric that ballerinas probably spend way too much money on, the leotard. Have you ever wondered where it comes from? Why it looks the way it does? Well, to answer the first question we need to go back to France in the 1800s. There lived a man named Jaques Leotard. He was an accomplished trapeze artist. He had a desire to improve upon his performance, but to do that he needed to have an unrestrictive costume.

I can imagine that flying around in the air with baggy or heavy clothes would prove to be a safety hazard. Not to mention that they take away visually from his remarkable skills. So, he designed a tight-fitting costume that wouldn’t get in his way, but also more clearly exposed his incredible tricks, technique, and strong physique.

This was the leotard, though at his time it was called a maillot. Quickly, this costume became popular among his fellow circus artists, especially among the “strong men”.

The trend continued to spread and evolve throughout the centuries influencing all kinds of sports including: skating, gymnastics, cycling, acrobats, gymnasts, athletes, and of course stage performers.

So what kinds of leotards are there?

There are Unitards, also known as body stockings, which cover the upper body & the legs. They are most often used by dancers, acrobats, gymnasts, athletes, and stage performers.

Then there is the Singlet. This is like a unitard, but instead of covering the full leg, it only covers up to half of the thigh, similar to shorts. This is often worn by cyclists, wrestlers, and rowers, but is commonly used by dancers and gymnasts too.

Then there is the standard leotard. This one-piece garment covers the upper body while leaving the legs exposed. Most commonly used by female dancers and gymnasts.

Going back to our second question, “why does the leotard look the way it does?”, “What is the purpose?” Well, ballet is an aesthetic art form. It’s all about creating lines and shapes that evoke emotions. Now, true, often on stage costumes can actually be quite concealing, but in order to correct the body and shape it, you have to see it. That’s why in training and rehearsing, etc we are generally required to wear very tight-fitting clothes. So we can see the things that need to be adjusted, and also so our coaches can correct us. In school especially, it is often a requirement that you wear only tights, , a leotard and possibly a skirt. As we sculpt our bodies we must see them.

We also have modern ballet productions that only have a leotard or unitard for a costume and this is purely for the audience to see the skill and range of movement the body has. These tend to be more “athletic” ballets that include many wide, exaggerated classical movements.

In a way, if you think about it, it would be a shame to go watch something you could not see.

There are many ins and outs of what we wear and why we wear it, but that’s ok, we have a lot of time to explore this huge and diverse wardrobe.

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