Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Object: The leotard


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* "'Leotard' is a new word in fashion parlance," trilled Life magazine in September 1943. That same year, Harper's Bazaar described it as "a new idea, leading toward the 21st century and the cosmic costumes of Flash Gordon's supergirl". But while it may have been new to the American public, the man who gave his name to it had achieved fame more than 80 years earlier.

* Jules Léotard was a law student and trapeze pioneer from Toulouse who, by all accounts, held himself in rather high esteem. Having become dextrous on the parallel bars, he rigged up a rudimentary construction of bars and ropes over his father's swimming pool, and developed a unique aerial act. One hundred and fifty-five years ago this week, he debuted a 12-minute routine at the Cirque Napoléon in Paris, with mattresses carefully arranged on the ground should he fall. Crucially, he didn't.

* Léotard became an international sensation, partly for his act and partly for his stage costume. He called it a maillot, and while it had a practical purpose – frilly shirts and trapeze work do not co-exist happily – Léotard was only too aware of its figure-hugging nature, as were the women who turned out in droves to watch. They were immortalised in George Laybourne's music hall song, "The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze": "His movements were graceful, all girls he could please, and my love he purloined away...".

* Léotard died young, at around the age of 32, from typhoid, some say cholera. In 1886, some 15 years after his death, the word leotard started to be widely used to describe the garment now worn by many other circus performers. It became popular with Broadway dancers in the 1920s, ballet dancers in the 1960s, and anyone who worked out to Jane Fonda videos in the 1980s. Few of us look good in one.