I am so grateful to reader Emma Farais for recommending that I look into the history of the leotard. It was invented by — well, who else — Jules Léotard.
Born in 1842, Jules grew up to be an acrobat. He is credited with inventing trapeze and performed with French circuses. He invented and then began performing in leotards and he was a big hit. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum:
The original leotard was an all-in-one knitted suit. It allowed freedom of movement, was relatively aerodynamic and there was no danger of a flapping garment becoming entangled with the ropes. Even more importantly, it showed off his physique to its best advantage.
He was a huge hit with the ladies. Alas, he died at age 28. Or 32, depending on the source.
But the leotard lived on. Leotards were adapted for women, but the form and function were similar. Think vintage muscle men and women.
Male dancers, athletes, and thespians wore leotards well into the ’70s. Eventually, though, disco happened. Disco fashion emphasized leotard fashion for women, as this roller disco shot from the Empire Rollerdome reveals:
(Oh, to be a roller disco queen in ’70s Brooklyn. Sigh.)
Men eventually abandoned leotards as they became increasingly popular with women. We saw the same pattern, of course, with high heels and cheerleading: male flight from feminizing fashions and activities. The more women wore leotards, the less men wore them. Eventually, companies stopped making leotards for men altogether.
To the disappointment of all the (het) ladies, I’m sure.
Today, a Google Image search for leotard returns all ladies. Mostly girls, in fact. Not a guy in the bunch:Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.