A leotard is a unisex skin-tight one-piece garment that covers the torso but leaves the legs free. It was made famous by the French acrobatic performer Jules Léotard (1842–1870).
Leotards are worn by acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, figure skaters, athletes, actors, and circus performers both as practice garments and performance costumes. They are often worn together with ballet skirts on top and tights or sometimes bike shorts as underwear. There are sleeveless, short-sleeved and long-sleeved leotards. A variation is the unitard, which also covers the legs. As a casual garment, a leotard can be worn with a belt,it can also more commonly worn under overalls or short skirts.
Leotards are entered through the neck, in contrast to 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.
Leotards are used for a variety of purposes, including yoga, cardiovascular exercise, dance (particularly for ballet and/or modern), as pajamas, for additional layered warmth under clothing, and for recreational and casual wear. They may form a part of children's dressing up and play outfits and can also be worn as a top.
Leotards are commonly worn in figure skating, postwar modern dance, traditional ballet and gymnastics, especially by young children. Practice leotards are usually sleeveless. Female competition garments for gymnastics and skating are almost always long-sleeved, while male competition leotards may be sleeved or sleeveless, the latter more common in gymnastics, the former in figure skating.
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 is a general French word for different types of tight-fitting shirts or sports shirts. 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 one-piece swimsuits today still being 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 1970s, with more colorful leotards appearing on the scene, most often in ballet and exercise.
By the late 1970s 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 1980s leotards for exercise wear had become little more than bikini bottoms with straps over the shoulders, generally worn with cropped shirts. From the mid 80's through the mid 90's leotards were popularly worn as tops with jeans especially skinny jeans. By the mid 1990s leotards had been almost completely replaced for exercise wear by the sports bra and shorts.
Leotards are a versatile garment that can either be dressed up or dressed down. The illustration of Taylor Dayne shows a stage costume that has been heavily embellished with sequins and sparkles; it is matched with striped tights and a cropped cardigan to create an extremely eye-catching costume.
Among exercise garments, leotards may be seen along with other types of garments, such as T-shirts, crop tops and tights.
For gymnastics, the leotard should fit snugly, like a second skin. Leotards that are too big and baggy can prove a danger to both the gymnast and coach. If the leotard catches on an apparatus, the gymnast may fall.
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 a slightly lower cut leg opening and a lower cut front.
Leotards are commonly worn by male dancers (particularly for ballet) and gymnasts. Leotard-like garments (often of the "biketard" type) are also often worn by men in sports such as rowing, wrestling, cycling and running.
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