For a long time many of the garments used by dancers were very awkward and prevented freedom of movement. These outfits may have helped those watching a performance to understand a story or a theme, but they certainly didn’t help the person wearing them! Today, there are a number of modern clothing items which both look good and let a dancer or gymnast perform to the best of their ability in much greater comfort. Those who have a passion for these sorts of performance need to have their clothing designed by people who understand their needs, and who better than someone who was themselves an acrobat? Jules Leotard was a 19th century circus acrobat who was famous for his trapeze act (he is famous in part as the Daring Young man on the Flying Trapeze in the much loved song). He also invented a garment that bears his name – the leotard, which he famously wore in his act.
For a relatively recent item of clothing, leotards are really widely used. Although they only occasionally enter the world of popular fashion, leotards are used for gymnastics, acrobatics, dances and many other kinds of performance. This popularity is due to the amazing variety of designs available and due to the sheer practicality of the garment. All the sports and dances in question need items of clothing which allow for a large amount of unhindered movement. Dancers and athletes need to be able to stretch and bend without cumbersome clothing causing discomfort or getting in the way. As with any energetic and physically demanding activity, dance, gymnastics and similar exercises can cause the performer to get hot very easily. Leotards help a dancer/gymnast to keep cool, and modern materials used in their production helps to wick perspiration away from the skin for extra comfort.
Although a large proportion of the population would feel self conscious wearing a leotard for various reasons, they are more widely used than many people think. As well as more obvious uses such as ballet and circus acts, leotards are commonly seen used by figure skaters, acrobats and pop stars in music videos. It is a common misconception that a leotard does not have any arms or legs, but there are styles available with long sleeves, and unitards cover both the arms and legs. Jules Leotard may well have been surprised by the variety of uses for his creation (which he originally called a maillot), as it was initially intended for use by male acrobats.
Through its uses in dance a sport, the leotard has become part of modern athletic culture and has also managed to enter into popular fashion – whether this is for better or for worse will vary depending on who you ask! There is no doubt that the leotard has made the lives of dancers, acrobats and gymnasts all over the world more comfortable and practical. One thing seems to be certain, however, and that is that the leotard will be widely used for some time to come.