Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


From ballet to bars: Bodysuit fashion trend has deep roots in art

Bodysuits play significant role in dance, feminism, pop culture
Carter Bouavichith
UMDT Jazz Performance UDA

Students in Madison and dancers in the Nutcracker have at least one thing in common — the bodysuit. Though “leotard” is a more appropriate and technical term for the ballet bodysuit, the tight, form-fitting garment appeals to all as it allows for unrestricted movement and portrays ease.

Boiled down to its basics, the bodysuit is a stretchy one-piece, intended to cover and highlight feminine curves. The leotard was created in the 19th century by its French acrobat namesake Jules Léotard, according to Pointe Magazine. Before the 1960s, leotards were worn mainly by circus performers and gymnasts. They were then before adopted into dance culture as practice wear.

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Not too soon after, with the arrival of Lycra and Spandex fabrics in 1962, the leotard and unitard, a leotard with longer sleeves and legs, took off within the realm of women’s athletic clothing, first for comfort and then for style. Bodily shapes are accentuated and on display when fitted in a bodysuit, so despite its functional beginnings, the intentions were soon warped and later flipped on their head. 


Once an athletic style, the bodysuit evolved and developed into a hallmark of the dominatrix, a sexually dominating woman. It became the first symbol of female power before transitioning into the bodysuit we now know and love.

This persona was adapted into DC Comics for mainstream consumption by none other than Catwoman herself. Suddenly, there was a female hero in a sector dominated by men. She donned a tight-fitted black ‘catsuit’ paired with a bullwhip as her weapon of choice to complete the dominatrix look. It acted as both an accessible and early display of female power. 

It was around this time in the 60s that form-fitting wear, such as the bodysuit, began sewing itself into the fashion world and pumping out to the public world. Athletic wear transitioned from dance studios and aerobics classes to everyday wear that allowed for the appraisal of the majority female identifying silhouette. Femme people everywhere were showing off their curves and channeling their inner Catwoman as they strutted in their suits.

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The bodysuits popular in today’s day and age are the ones girls struggle to snap back into place after a much-needed bathroom break on a night out. While this is still considered a bodysuit, it serves less of a practical purpose than originally intended. 

The unitard and leotard continue to be essentials for dance and theatre. Most recently, University Theatre used a white zentai in their production of Don Juan. According to Costume Studio Supervisor Jim Greco, a zentai suit is when “the entire body is covered.”

“Dance uses a unitard or catsuit most often,” Greco said. “If we use a catsuit, it will usually be [used] as a base for a character. For example, in “Into the Woods,” the wolf had a unitard worn over body shaping pieces to make the actor appear more wolf-like.”

Most people with experience dancing can recall their unitard days and some might opt to wear bodysuits now just for that sense of nostalgia.

University of Minnesota’s Dance Team Coach Amanda Gaines said they fashioned some of their first-place UDA College Nationals costumes around the unitard.

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As the team danced to “Mr. Morale” by Kendrick Lamar during their Jazz Performance, the team sported backless unitards with see-through long sleeves designed by Elle Bauer Designs. Bauer has been designing the team’s jazz costumes since 2019.

“We had a lot of floor work so the pant aspect allowed for easy movement on the floor, while long sleeves provided a clean visual for the upper body,” Gaines said.

The practicality and femininity of the bodysuit is what attracts many different types of people to the wonders of the bodysuit. It’s form-fitting but does not cut into the body in an uncomfortable way. Instead, it encourages movement.

As you step into your bodysuit before a Thursday night on the town, consider the longstanding, art-filled history that comes with wearing such a piece. 

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