What is a Leotard?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A leotard is a snug fitting exercise and performance garment that covers the body from the shoulders to the top of the thighs. A number of performers including dancers, ice skaters, acrobats, and other circus performers wear this garment. The 1980s were really the heyday of the leotard, coming in to pop culture through movies and dance trends, and were popular exercise wear during that time. The garment comes in a wide range of colors, and can be decorated for performances with contrasting colored panels, sequins, rhinestones, and other accents. In ballet performance, many dance companies wear standardized leotards, so that they do not distract the audience.

Leotards are popular in ballet.
Leotards are popular in ballet.

Many consumers have observed that a leotard resembles a one piece bathing suit, and it was in fact the inspiration for the modern garment. It was designed by Jules Léotard, a French trapeze artist who performed in the 1800s. During his lifetime, he called it a maillot, a French word which is now used to refer to a swimming suit. In the late 1800s, the term “leotard” began to replace “maillot,” in honor of the garment's inventor. The garments became popular for dancers in the 20th century, once they realized the potential for freedom of movement that the leotard allows.

Figure skaters typically wear leotards.
Figure skaters typically wear leotards.

Most performers do not wear a leotard alone. At a minimum, it will be worn with tights, but it is common to wear a tutu around the waist as well to obscure the groin area and upper thighs. For most performances, an armless one will be worn, although companies also manufacture them with half or full sleeves as well. In rehearsal, many dancers wear leg warmers with their leotards to prevent muscle cramping and soreness.

Ballet dancers typically wear standardized leotards to avoid distracting the audience.
Ballet dancers typically wear standardized leotards to avoid distracting the audience.

The elastic material in a leotard allows it to fit snugly to the form of the wearer. For this reason, care should be taken when maintaining the garments to keep the material stretchy and in good shape. Most come with care tags that will detail how they should be handled, but as a general rule, they should be hand washed if possible, or washed inside out on a gentle machine cycle on cold. In both cases, a leotard should be hung to dry, and if it is multi-colored, the pale colored sections should be hung above the dark ones to minimize color bleeding. If it has sequins, metallic threads, and other similar decorations, it should always be hand washed in cold water.

Leotards are sometimes worn by theater performers.
Leotards are sometimes worn by theater performers.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Did you folks also know that the leotard was and still is used for exercise? Both men and women have worn leotards for aerobics since the 70s, maybe before. Leotards became much more popular in the 80s when Jazzercise and Jane Fonda took the aerobics craze to the next level and when workout home videos were booming.

As one of those gentlemen who loves aerobics and has been doing it since I was a kid back in the 80s, I always wore leotards and now I have so many that people tell me that I must have the largest collection of them and any aerobic workout wear. I even have lots of leg warmers!

I appreciate you folks posting this article on my favorite piece of clothing on here!


The dance leotards with the clear adjustable straps are a life saver. You still have straps, but because they are clear, the audience cannot see them when you are performing.

My niece is in dance and every year we look forward to her recital. She has several leotards with these clear straps. It seems like every year the costumes get a little bit more elaborate. I don't know how much money my sister spends on dance costumes every year, but I bet it is a lot.

I think most every dance outfit starts out with a leotard though. It has been years since I wore one of these. I think I have too many bumps and bulges for something like this to be very comfortable. I will stick with my loose t-shirts and sweat pants.


I wear a simple Danskin leotard when I am doing my yoga. For me, this is the most comfortable thing I have found. I will also wear some yoga pants over the leotard. There are days when I am just hanging around the house when I might keep this on most of the day.

They sell turtleneck leotards with long sleeves that are perfect on cold days. I don't like baggy clothes, but also don't like clothes that are tight and restrictive. A leotard is the perfect combination since it fits close to my body, but yet I still feel like I can breathe.


My girls grow so fast that I have to buy new leotards much sooner than they wear out. For this reason, I usually just wash the plain leotards like all their other clothes.

The leotards that have sequins and special embellishments are the ones that I have to take special care with. It seems like a black leotard is pretty standard for many of the girls in their classes.

If you have more than one child involved in these activities, it can get pretty expensive to buy special dance clothes all the time. One of my friends opened up a small consignment shop and many of her items are dance clothes. This is a great way to buy some of these items without paying full price for them.


My daughter is in gymnastics and dance, so we have no shortage of leotards around our house. They come in just about as many colors and styles as you could want.

In the winter, she will wear a long sleeve leotard which helps keep her warm without restricting her movement. If she has a performance or a recital, they usually all wear the same color leotard.

When she is at practice and can choose which leotard she wants to wear, she usually always goes with a bright color like pink or purple. I don't usually go to the bother of hand washing them, but just throw them in the washer with other clothes of similar color.

I usually don't put them in the dryer though. It seems like they will hold their shape longer if I just let them air dry. Once in awhile I forget and they get put in the dryer. It doesn't really do any damage, they just will lose their shape faster.


thanks, wisegeek!

I learned a thing, and refreshed knowledge on two more, on this subject.

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