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Olympic Leotards: A Retrospective!

Little is more iconic to the sport of women’s gymnastics than the leotard.

In women’s gymnastics culture, fondly known in cyber circles as The Gymternet, the finer points of leotard style are a fiercely debated topic on which there is no right or wrong answer. Olympic leotards, much like the olympics themselves, are a subject of much interest.

So, let’s take a look at how Olympic leotards have evolved.

The earliest of the early gymnastics costumes, you can hardly call them a leotard, comprised a short knee-length skirt and a long sleeved shirt. They covered as much skin as possible while still allowing the gymnast to execute a few movements. This was back in the days where gymnastics was more akin to dance than the death defying, acrobatic, highly skilled endeavor we see in competition today. You’ll see that much like with gymnastics equipment, gymnastics apparel evolves in tandem with the attempted skills of the athletes themselves.


Danish Gymnasts

The 1930’s and ’40’s see leotards come into being what wikipedia defines as a “a unisex skin-tight one-piece garment that covers the torso, but leaves the legs exposed. The garment was first made famous by the French acrobatic performer Jules Léotard.”

While it’s not something you might wear to Sunday school, it was still a long way (baby) from the high cut, cling and bling the fierce and magnificent wear to flip in this century. As you will not see here on Marion Barone at the London Olympics in 1948, the shape is boxy, low cut at the leg and made in a fabric that hasn’t yet met modern stretch technology.

Helsinki 1952, Ruth Topalian inches a little closer to the leo in her long sleeved romper.


Melbourne 1956, The US women’s team wears a definitively stretchy, polyester-type leotard. From then on out, leotards take advantage of leaps forward in material science and leos are made in spandex, lycra and the like so that their clothes bend with their bodies and allow audiences and judges to appreciate the form they take.

At that time and through the ’60’s, a plain leo with a maybe small embellishment on the chest for your country was the style. Interestingly, compared to today they are all wearing different colors and not seeking a unified team look.

team look

Tokyo 1964, Muriel Davis strikes a pose and shows a leg line that’s inching higher toward the hip which brings us to a pretty important point in gymnastics leotard design.

Most gymnasts fall on the shorter end of the height spectrum. Now that social mores aren’t in play regarding extreme female modesty, like they were in the 1950’s prior to the cultural revolution of the 60’s and ’70’s, we begin to see coaches and athletes not shy away from showing off a gymnast’s physique. The rise of the leotard hemline gives the illusion of a longer leg and when you’re not even or just barely 5 feet tall. You need all the length you can get!


Mexico 1968, Cathy Rigby, credited with beginning the popularization of gymnastics, sports a leo with a ruche detailing you’d never see in today’s form fitted, sleek is everything world.


Montreal 1976, Nadia Comaneci, credited with continuing where Rigby began in igniting the passion for gymnastics in the hearts of little girls glued to TV sets around the world, scores her Perfect 10.0 in a new style,  Adidas leotard with their iconic three stripe piping in Romania’s colors lining the sides of this long sleeved leo.


Where Olympic leotards leaned subtle on patriotism prior to the 1980’s, Mary Lou Retton blew all that out of the water when she showed up wearing a full blown US flag as a leo in Los Angeles in 1984.

She also debuted the highest cut leotard leg to date. A powerhouse with killer quads, Ms. Retton stands 4’ 9” tall. She has what folks in gymnastics world affectionately refer to as a fire plug figure, meaning she’s built like a fire hydrant. She looked fantastic in that leo and that gold medal!

mary lou

The ’90’s saw the world get bolder from different teams as the world opened up, in so many ways. The Soviet Empire and the Berlin Wall fell. The Internet came online. The Karolys put the US team in high cut, plain, white leotards with patriotic flourishes to emphasize their abdominal musculature.


The 2000’s, the new century ushered in a new era for the Olympic leotard. It came into its own as a element of the performance.

China experimented with crushed velvet.

crushed velvet

We saw graphics from Greece, Ukraine, China and North Korea.


We even see a touch of the rhythmic gymnastics style leo here in Romania’s Catalina Ponor’s 2004 mesh cut-out style.


But the real MVP’s of the new millennium are swarovski crystals and the high gloss, ‘holographic’, form fitting, mystique fabric. Cling and bling is the new thing!

Gabby Douglas wore 1,188 swarovski crystals when she took the women’s all-around title in 2012 in a hot pink leo. In fact, there was a good deal of spirited debate — some might say even uproar — when the US team abandoned red, white and blue for hot pink that year.

The 2016 Rio Olympic leotards upped the ante with as many as 4,000 crystals per leotard! Retail price estimates for just one of those competition leotards puts them at would be $1,200 retail, not counting the cost of custom fittings, which of course, when you are designing for elite bodies hitting Olympic mats on the world stage, you are custom cutting.

The Final Five wowed the world with their leotard throwbacks to patriotism meets shiny!



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