Leotards Through the Ages
Published on 28/04/2017
The leotard was invented by Jules Leotard, a Frenchman born in 1842 who also pioneered the flying trapeze act. In fact, the original leotard, an all-in-one knitted suit, facilitated the trapeze artist's freedom of movement and their speed swinging through the air. Its close-fitting nature meant there was less chance of the acrobat becoming entangled on the ropes and it revealed their well-honed physiques to a paying audience. However, early leotards were different to leotards as we know them today, with thicker fabric and longer leg lines.
These leotards were as close fitting as the knitted fabrics of that era allowed. It wasn't until chemist Joseph Shivers invented lycra in the late 1950s, however, that the stretch and hold quality of a modern-day leotard was made possible. Looking at rehearsal photos and film of the Royal Ballet in the 1950s one can see the difference in their rehearsal wear and tights. At this point dancewear was more practical and basic in nature. Photographic evidence shows that leotards for ballet class were usually sleeved, often plain black and frequently featured hip alignment belts.
Of course, leotards were never designed solely for dancers. A wide range of participants in other fields, for example gymnastics and physical culture, wore them too. According to Bloch founder Betty Bloch-Wilkenfeld, "Bloch's first leotard was produced and manufactured in the late 1950s for the new exercise regime of Physical Culture using leotards with polo or high necks and long sleeves in a variety of bright colours. We then extended the range in 1970 when the RAD decided on new examination leotards made in two-way stretch Bri-Nylon with frills around the hips."
Nevertheless, the leotard remained an essentially practical garment for specialised types of exercise until the advent of the 1980s, when the aerobics/jazzercize craze entered people's lounge rooms via home videos. Suddenly leotards and leg warmers were all the rage and they entered into mainstream fashion consciousness. Bloch extended their leotard range through this era, with some of their best- selling leotards featuring extreme high cut legs and G string bottoms. Shiny nylon lycra fabrics reigned supreme and leotards were available in a wide range of bright and bold colours. These were often paired with similarly bright tights, leg warmers and headbands in contrasting colours. The sheer range of colours and prints available encouraged wearers to individualise their look by mixing and matching separates to create a range of different 'looks'.
Fast-forward to the '90s and the range of stretch fabrics, colours and styles available in your local dancewear shop had increased, while leg lines had come down. Cotton lycra and nylon lycra were still frequently used, but a wider range of matte fabrics with varying degrees of stretch were now available, including tactel and microfibre blends. In the last 20 years, the number of leotard styles, fabrics and colours on offer has expanded even further.
According to Sandie Windsor-Richards, National Manager, Dance Products & Services, "The current range from Bloch is extremely diverse using our own version of Microlux, Dritex, Poly/Cotton/Lycra with lace, mesh, embossing, trims and sequins for the littlies. Seasonal colours through the three ranges a year provide incredible choice for the dancer to choose the perfect leotard."
Yet for dancers in whom so much discipline is instilled and expected, the freedom to choose your own leotard, in a colour and style that makes you feel good can be empowering. To my mind this is the real value of the extraordinary range of leotard styles and colours on offer today.
by Geraldine Higginson
Geraldine is a reviewer for Dance Australia Magazine. She taught HSC Dance for six years and is currently completing a degree in Art History.
All photos © J.Bloch Pty Ltd