In this era of yoga pants, it’s easy to forget the leotard—early active-wear that required the confidence of a naked emperor.
Named after Jules Léotard, a 19th-century French acrobat (and a man), the garment is known for its close fit and resemblance to a woman’s bathing suit. Unlike the unitard, leotards have no legs and tend to ride up one’s rear in an asymmetric fashion that defies science.
Admittedly, I am leo-phobic, avoiding all situations that could put me near crotch-slinging clothing. I hate “sexy Halloween” costumes and business tops that stay tucked in because they snap over one’s skivvies. When I see celebrities in spangly bodysuits, I slam my hand on the table. Uh-uh, Taylor Swift.
Unlike my younger millennial counterparts, I have a history with the leotard that they should understand.
As a child of the 1980s, I envied my mother’s puffed sleeve bodysuit, the one she wore while executing the Jane Fonda Workout. When I was a little girl in tap class, I got my own first leotard, a light blue long-sleeve garment with a zipper down the front. I still remember how the nylon felt on my skin: scratchy with a chemically enhanced stretchiness. There was always an air pocket in the lower back, but I liked that I looked like a superhero when I opened my arms in a “T” and posed with one foot off the floor. As I bloomed from four-years-old to five, I swear my leotard tried to stunt my growth by giving me a constant frontal wedgie.
Later, I minored in dance in college. As I trekked through the snow from history to ballet, I felt like black bodysuits and pink tights were a humid second skin under my jeans and sweaters. Meanwhile, the fitness world hamstring curled itself around the dance crowd. Early adapters graduated from striped leotards to sports bras and baggy Adidas pants, à la Sporty Spice.
After college, I became a professional dancer and saved my money for audition leotards. My favorite was a bright red number with lots of criss-crossing stripes in the back. These leos weren’t cheap, ranging between $50 to $75, but they helped individuals stand out during cattle calls with hundreds of other young women. In the early 2000s, custom-made unitards became the “it” item. A few years later, leggings and tank tops emerged as the vestments of the Pilates and yoga crowd. They were so comfortable and resembled street clothes, which saved me time and money at the laundromat.
I get hives when I think of a leotard renaissance attempted by clothiers like American Apparel, a scandal-plagued company that recently closed more than a hundred stores. (It was the curse of the leo!) So do many of my colleagues, fellow fitness instructors whose careers started decades before mine.
Recently, I conducted a leo-poll to remind millennials how grateful they should be to those who sacrificed convenience to pave the way from leos to Lululemon. Here are three things my fitness elders remember about their time in Lycra:
- Leotard-wearers burn more calories in the bathroom than on the dance floor. I’ll let this unsavory fact sink in as I tell you about one of my mentors, a Baby Boomer whose aerobics career began in 1978. This woman has all the signs of bodysuit trauma, including hysterical laughter at the mere mention of a leotard. To conceal her identity—and keep her safe in the leotard witness protection program—I will call her “Jennifer.” Jennifer, who can still rock a step aerobics routine without falling off the bench, says leotards were tools of her trade, a new profession that didn’t even require certifications. Being a fitness instructor then was like embracing the Wild West. Instead of tumbleweeds, they had leg lifts. But when it came time to tinkle, everything had to come off: sweaty bodysuit, tights and underwear. What an inconvenience to a person who also stays hydrated.
- As leotards got smaller, underwear stayed the same size. Here’s what Jennifer says about that: “We didn’t wear thongs or go commando in those days, so your underwear had to fit under it. Hence, we had ‘high leg’ bikinis in white, beige or black. You wore—in this order—your underwear (with a sanitary napkin if needed because who wore tampons back then?), your pink or beige tights and your leotard.” Yuck. Before Madonna, your bra had to hide under your leotard. And yes, bras only came in white, beige or black. Another fitness professional—whom I’ll call Debbie—said she had to wear a sports bra underneath her leotard because shelf bras hadn’t been invented yet. But unlike Jennifer, Debbie avoided panty lines by going sans. Instead of wearing her leo over her tights, she pulled her tights over her leotard to avoid “ride up.” Don’t get Jennifer or Debbie started about yeast infections, a major hazard, especially before the birth of the cotton crotch.
- Like snowflakes, each leotard had its own personality that had to stand alone without legwarmers or belts. Here’s what Jennifer says about hers: “My favorite leotard, which I still have, is grey with a short skirt attached. Very flattering. I still wear it today, on Halloween.” Debbie, who has banished all leotards from her drawer, remembers technological advances in fabric, from cotton and nylon to Spandex and wicking material. Usually, she wore spaghetti straps or tank style, but when she choreographed a dance exercise video in 1989, thongs were the height of fashion. Yet like Pangaea, the supercontinent that separated into individual landmasses, leotards were beginning to break apart into (gasp) briefs and sports bras. Debbie remembers her dancers were to wear thong briefs underneath thick footless tights for the video. On top, they were going to wear midriff shirts to show their toned bellies. Jennifer added that women with skinny back sides have no business wearing thongs and that we should all meditate on that.
Today, Jennifer and Debbie have occasional leotard flashbacks. But mostly, they embrace tank tops, shorts and leggings when they teach classes. While there’s nothing wrong with a thong as outerwear, they agree there’s nothing right either.
Ann Votaw is a freelance writer in New York who has a M.A. in Health Education. She teaches yoga and physical fitness to adults 60 and better.