Word Origins: Jules Leotard and the Leotard

About the history and biography of Jules Leotard whose name is the origin for the clothing leotard.

LEOTARD (le-e-tard) n. A close-fitting garment usually with long sleeves, a high neck, and ankle-length legs worn for practice or performance by dancers, acrobats, and aerialists; also, tights.

A baby who has to be hung upside down from a trapeze bar to stop his crying would suggest to any parent a fledgling star aerialist. Such was the case with Jules Leotard, at least according to his Memoirs, a small volume swollen with windy conceit. At any rate, Leotard did become one of France's most famous aerialists in the 19th century, perfecting the aerial somersault, among other acrobatics, and starring in Paris and London circuses. But his name is remembered for the leotard costume he invented, which is still worn by circus performers.

That vanity played a large role as the handmaiden of his invention is witnessed by the plug the performer gave the leotard at the end of his Memoirs. "Do you want to be adored by the ladies?" he exhorts his male readers. "[Then] put on a more natural garb, which does not hide your best features." So far nobody earthbound has followed his advice. But the leotard in the form of leotards is more popular today than ever. Originally, the costume was a one-piece elastic garment, snug-fitting, low at the neck and sleeveless, but it became a garment covering the arms as well. Today, though no dictionary has yet noted the distinction, leotards, the plural of the word, is used for the pantyhose that little girls wear, really half-tights, and sometimes, though not as often, describes women's pantyhose.

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