Leotards: In the Stretch

July 24, 2007
Houston Ballet principal Sara Webb has 150. San Francisco Ballet soloist Elizabeth Miner says she’s got too many to count. Fellow company member Pauli Magierek owns at least 60. And Houston corps de ballet member Jaquel Charlesworth says, “I’m kind of obsessed,” before mentioning that she owns 200.
Everyone likes to have options when it comes to leotards. Some make you look good when you feel fat, some come in bright colors that cheer you up, others in comfortable fabrics that you can wear in long rehearsals. By now there’s a leotard for every mood, body-type, and taste. The black cap-sleeved Capezio model that set a standard in the 1940s has come a long way.
Once, the leotard was a rarity. Invented by the flamboyant Parisian acrobat Jules Leotard in the mid-19th century, the full-length body sock was largely ignored by dancers and only appeared occasionally onstage—think Nijinsky in
Spectre de la rose
. The leotard owes much of its popularity to chemists at DuPont Chemical. Before the development of nylon in 1939, most dancers wore cotton dresses or short tunics that tied in the back for class and practice. Yvonne Mounsey, who danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the late ’30s and later with New York City Ballet, remembers “We used to wear little black trunks and a little crossover sweater.” But when the leotard began to catch on, dancers felt free to snip, pinch and sew. “None of us liked the cuts,” remembers Patricia Neary, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet. “In company class, Susanne Farrell and everybody would pinch the bodice, so we’d have a lower cut.”
When leotards first became popular after World War II, they were made mainly of cotton, or more rarely other fabrics, in just a few basic styles. “I remember a turtleneck with a zipper up the back that was hideous,” says Marlena Juniman, Primasoft vice president, and a leotard designer. The elastic often gave out in the legs, and the fabrics weren’t colorfast. Gradually, more nylon and nylon-cotton blends began making their way into dancewear. By the 1950s, a nylon dubbed Helenka began to be popular. It proved stretchier and better fitting than the earlier ones, but leotard designs still offered little variety. Mirella president Marilyn Burbank remembers Repetto leotards, imported in cotton from France, as a design watershed in 1960s. “They had princess seams and were made in lots of styles,” she recalls.
Within a decade, new nylons like Milliskin that used Lycra, a petroleum-based elastic, came on the scene. They wore well and led to a rainbow explosion of designs and colors. With the introduction of high-tech fabrics like Supplex in the 1990s, the world of dancewear and athletic gear took a step closer. “When you wash Supplex, it doesn’t fade like cotton,” notes Jody Born, a designer at Leo’s Dancewear, which began manufacturing leotards around 1951. Many currently popular fabrics first were introduced as athletic apparel. “Dancers have taken notice,” says Capezio designer Liz Livingston, explaining the crossover appeal. “These blends retain their stretch through repeated washings and they wick moisture away from the body, so you don’t become soaked with sweat.”
The high tech fabrics have largely supplanted old-fashioned cotton leotards. “We’ve just seen a big transition away from natural fibers among dancers,” says Marie West, founder and owner of BodyWrappers. Many new synthetics feel, as well as look, very different. “There are some incredible nylons, very soft and sensuous to the touch, that we use now,” says Susan Wexler, vice president of design at Danskin.
For dancers today, there are more styles than ever from which to choose, and an opportunity to find their own look. For some, it’s a rite of passage from student to professional. Miner remembers realizing she’d finally earned the privilege of discarding regulation attire when she entered SFB after attending the School of American Ballet. “At first,” she says, “I was wearing way too much stuff, but then I was like, OK, calm down a bit.” After getting rid of the pink tights from their student days, many gather the courage to have some fun. San Francisco’s Magierek likes to wear short unitards, turtlenecks, stripes, and prints. “I match everything,” she says. “I always pick out certain earrings to put with certain eye shadow. If I’m wearing a blue leotard, I’ll wear blue mascara and I have blue contacts that I put in.”
The choices keep on coming. Up next? Mirella president Jay Hammermeister predicts that tubular knitting techniques will create a revolution. “Within the next five years, you are going to see most dance garments being made seamless, and that streamlining is important to dancers,” he says. “Plus, you can vary the tightness of the knitting in different sections of the leotard, so, for instance, you could flatten the tummy area.”
Of course, not every dancer has turned away from traditional looks. In Houston, corps member Charlesworth sometimes wears her mother’s Capezio leotards and matching tights in eye-catching retro hues like salmon and aqua. Other times she wears cotton velvet leotards, but she also shops at T.J. Maxx for athletic gear she can adapt. “You can buy a swimsuit off-season and get two for the price of one,” Charlesworth says. Then she cuts out the cups and under-wiring to create a flattering leotard.
New styles always find a following though. “Dancers are funny,” Primasoft’s Juniman says. “They’re the most dedicated and the most fickle people in the world. They always try to find that magic bullet: ‘What is going to make me thinnest and best?’ ”
But protocol in an art form as venerable as dance still exerts an influence. Houston Ballet’s Webb notes that former artistic director Ben Stevenson instilled a sense of restraint among their company, which does not wear much “junk” in company class or rehearsal. “Ben had a lot to do with that,” she says. “If you had any kind of sweatpants on, he would kick you out.” According to Charlesworth, current director Stanton Welch is a little more relaxed. “He knows that we are all professionals,” she says. “If we need to wear a legwarmer, we can.”
Protocol aside, most dancers enjoy the liberty that leotards allow them. “We are more free to express ourselves,” Webb says happily. “There’s that lucky leotard, or the one that makes me feel good. I’ve got one I love that has some fake sparkles on it. When you are having one of those days when it’s hard to get motivated, you want to have something that makes you feel prettier.” And as every dancer knows, when you feel good, you look good. And you dance even better.

Elizabeth Khuri has written on fashion trends for
Woman’s Wear Daily.