In January 1943, Harper's Bazaar hailed the leotard as "a new idea, leading toward the twenty-first century and the cosmic costumes of Flash Gordon's supergirl" (p.35). That same year's August issue urged college girls to "be the first to wear the leotard under your wool jersey jumper, a silhouette new from the ground up, a fashion so honest and sound it's bound to be a classic" (p. 65). In September of that year, Life magazine featured these "strange-looking garments" on its cover, declaring that "'Leotard' is a new word in fashion parlance" (p. 47).
The leotard may have been new to fashion, but it had been pioneered some eighty years before by Jules Leotard, a French gymnast who invented the flying trapeze in 1859. To show off his figure during daring aerial performances, he wore a short, close-fitting garment, cut low in the neck and gusseted between the legs. By the late nineteenth century, the worsted-wool or silk garment that acquired his name was standard wear for acrobats and gymnasts. In the early twentieth century, the leotard with tights was also the traditional rehearsal costume for ballet dancers and increasingly preferred as modern dance-performance costume. This stylized form of nudity—starkly anonymous or with minimal accessories—accentuated the line of bodies in motion in works by innovators such as Serge Diaghilev, Martha Graham, and George Balanchine.
As wartime fashion for co-eds, the leotards designed by Mildred Orrick and Claire McCardell could be snug, two-piece, wool-jersey garments with long legs, long sleeves, and high necks. Made in many colors or vividly striped, they were worn with sleeveless jumpers, skirts, or evening pants; underneath, according to Harper's Bazaar, went a brassiere and garterless pantie-girdle—or nothing at all.
The freedom given by leotards was appreciated in the 1960s by hip young women and by designers including Rudi Gernreich, a former dancer, as the modern concept of "body clothes" emerged. By the late 1970s, advances in technology gave active sportswear maximum comfort and fit. Made of stretchy nylon and spandex, a leotard and tights became the basic fitness fashion, sanctioned by Jane Fonda in her influential Workout Book of 1981. By 1985, comedian Dave Barry, in Stay Fit and Healthy Until You're Dead could joke that this outfit encouraged women to exercise extra vigorously since it "shows every bodily flaw a woman has, no matter how minute" and to refrain from drinking, since "there is no way to go to the bathroom in a leotard and tights."
In the body-conscious late 1970s and 1980s, many forms of the leotard—also known as the bodysuit, mail-lot, catsuit, unitard, body stocking, or bodytard—were everywhere or the disco or roller disco; according to the 1980 book Sportsfashion, leotards "stretching and moving to the beat of the music" (p. 137) adopted shimmering fabrics, Day-Glo colors, sequins, and rhinestones. The versatile garment was also seen as perfect on the beach, in town, and at the office, as dancewear companies Danskin and Capezio and designers such as Betsey Johnson made the leotard the basis of a wardrobe of separates that were "interchangeable, washable, packable, seasonless, timeless, ageless" (p. 142). To the late twentieth century, the leotard still seemed "the first dressing concept worthy of the twenty-first century" (p. 116). In the new millenium, now sometimes simply called a "body," it continues to be a streamlined second skin.
Adler, France-Michèle. Sportsfashion. New York: Avon Books, 1980.
Strong, Roy et al. Designing for the Dancer. London: Elron Press, 1981.
H. Kristina Haugland