Early in its history, the leotard was called a maillot, a French word for “swaddling clothes.” This name may have derived from the tightness of the garment, or from the name of a 19th-century costumier at the Paris Opéra Ballet.
Whatever the origin of its name, the maillot was popularized by the circus performer Jules Léotard (1839-1870), the acrobat about whom the song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” was written. Léotard invented a skin-tight, one-piece garment designed to give him freedom of movement and show off the fitness of his body.
Although dancers were already moving toward lighter, tighter clothing for practice and performance, Léotard’s maillots certainly inspired ballet costumers. Dancers gravitated naturally toward the new garment for the same reasons that Leotard had created it.
Léotard’s name gradually replaced maillot as the preferred term for the garment, and the first recorded usage of the word leotard in English dates to 1886. The word maillot later became a term for a one-piece bathing suit, but it is rarely used in English today.
Although Léotard created his maillots for men, the fashion spread to women as standards of modesty were loosened, and dancers gravitated naturally to the new garment that allowed such freedom of movement. Popularity increased drastically in the mid-20th century, with the creation of new stretch fabrics that greatly improved fit and availability. Leotards also became fashionable outside of dance class, and inspired the “bodysuit” craze of the 1970s.
Today, dancers, gymnasts and others enjoy a variety of fabrics and styles that certainly would have amazed Jules Léotard and his contemporaries!