November 12, 2022


Today marks the anniversary of the first public appearance of trapeze artist Jules Léotard in 1859. 

n. a close-fitting one-piece garment worn by acrobats and dancers
Oxford English Dictionary

Our word for the classic (and revealing) uniform of ballerinas and gymnasts is the namesake of Jules Léotard, a vainglorious French acrobat who wanted nothing more than female adoration of what he considered his “best features.”

Perhaps the directors of the 1984 Val Kilmer comedy Top Secret! had Léotard in mind when they featured a ballerina gracefully leaping from loin to loin in a gauntlet of male dancers, resting each time on their ridiculously exaggerated accoutrement to an appropriately chosen accompaniment from The Nutcracker.

Jules Léotard was born to circus performer parents in Toulouse, France, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Though originally on track to become a lawyer, he became enamored with the trapeze bars (and, apparently, his own physique) and joined the Cirque Napoleon in 1859. Donning his invention, what he called a maillot—a skin-tight, one-piece garment with long sleeves to allow free movement and to display his muscles—Léotard became the first trapeze artist to execute a mid-air somersault and the first to swing from one trapeze to another. All of this was in the days before safety nets (introduced in 1871). Léotard often performed over a stack of mattresses or, more often, directly over the heads of diners in music halls.

So impressive were his flights and flips that in 1867 he was the direct inspiration for what has become the anthem of aerial acrobats—”The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

“The girl that I loved she was handsome,
I tried all I knew her to please,
But I could not please her one quarter so well
As that man upon the trapeze.
He’d fly thro’ the air with the greatest of ease—
A daring young man on the flying trapeze—
His movements were graceful, all girls he could please,
And my love he purloined away.”

Léotard’s word maillot is now used for jerseys or swimsuits, having been replaced by leotard in 1866, nearly twenty years after the acrobat’s premature death from smallpox before his thirtieth birthday. The design was certainly created for men, and Léotard was quite explicit about the effect he hoped his invention would have, as he describes in his Memoires:

“Do you want to be adored by the ladies? [I]nstead of draping yourself in unflattering clothes, invented by ladies…put on a more natural garb, which does not hide your best features.”