Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day in 1859 that a man named Jules Léotard made his first public appearance as the world’s first flying trapeze artist. He was just 21 years old at the time, but Léotard had been practicing since he was a little boy.
Léotard was born in Toulouse, France, the son of a gymnastics instructor. After he passed his law exams, he seemed destined to join the legal profession. But he had also been experimenting with trapeze bars, ropes and rings suspended over a swimming pool in his father’s gymnasium, and the years of practice paid off. He was the first to turn a somersault in mid-air, and the first to jump from one trapeze to the next.
If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because he was also the designer of the skin-tight one-piece garment which was eventually named after him. Léotard himself called the garment a “maillot”, which is a general French word for different types of tight-fitting shirts or sports shirts. Léotard’s maillot was an all-in-one knitted suit. It allowed freedom of movement, was relatively aerodynamic and there was no danger of a flapping garment becoming entangled with the ropes. Even more importantly, it showed off his physique to its best advantage, making him a huge hit with the ladies and inspiring George Leybourne to immortalize him on the popular song, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”
In his memoirs, Léotard vainly wrote: “Do you want to be adored by the ladies? A trapeze is not required, but instead of draping yourself in unflattering clothes, invented by ladies, and which give us the air of ridiculous mannikins, put on a more natural garb, which does not hide your best features.”
The first known use of the name leotard for clothing came in 1886, many years after Léotard’s death at the age of 28. It is still worn today by acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, figure skaters, circus performers, athletes, actors, and exercise enthusiasts throughout the world.
In recognition of today’s anniversary, on today’s bike ride I wore only a leotard. No, I’m lying. Not even I would want to see that. Actually, on today’s ride I rode to the D.C. campus of the Trapeze School New York, located near Nationals Park at 1269 New Jersey Avenue (MAP) in southeast D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood. If you’re thinking of joining the circus, or just looking for a couple hours of unique fun, I recommend giving them a try.