The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When did gymnastics leotards get so dang sparkly? The history of an Olympic outfit.

That’s a lot of shine. (David Ramos/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Over the course of 80 years, gymnastics has changed a lot. The moves are more complicated and so are the leotards. Okay, particularly the leotards — especially when it comes to bedazzling.

Last week, The New York Times reported that Nastia Liukin’s 2008 leotard featured 184 crystals. In 2012, Gabby Douglas‘s outfit increased the number to 1,188. This year? Well, according to The Times, many of Team USA’s leotards “have close to 5,000 Swarovski crystals each.”

Say what? Five-thousand? Just how did we get to this strange, super-shimmery place?

Let’s take a look. Here’s a timeline that illustrates how the once humbly designed garment became a sparkly work of art.

Live updates: The latest results and news from the Rio Games

* * * * * * * * * * *

1936: The original women’s Olympic leotard

The original Team USA donned simple white rompers. Without spandex, which wasn’t invented until 1959, the leotards fit loosely, so it’s a good thing the moves of the 1930s didn’t require the same degree of movement as today.

* * * * * * * * * * *

1948: The first leotard swag

Still without spandex, the bronze-medal winning U.S. team donned plain white romper-like leos with a couple of racing stripes set diagonally down the front.

* * * * * * * * * * *

1956: Slimmer cuts and darker colors

The 1950s brought a wider variety of colors as teams and athletes sought to show off their individuality.

* * * * * * * * * * *

1964: Long sleeves and higher cut

As moves got more complicated, gymnasts’ leotards became more streamlined. Long sleeves came into vogue along with higher cut bottoms, which elongated the often short athletes’ legs.

* * * * * * * * * * *

1976: Swag still subtle

Through the 1970s, leotards stayed pretty stark, including the one worn by Romania’s Nadia Comenici, who scored the first perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. Her plain leo featured her country’s colors in three stripes down the side.

* * * * * * * * * * *

1984: Bold patriotism rules

The 1980s brought bold new designs to many team leotards, including the United States’ leo, which featured a star-spangled front and back. Leotards also got more functional with the incorporation of higher-tech materials and even higher cut legs.

* * * * * * * * * * *

1988: Patriotism takes a backseat to showmanship

With the famed Karolyis taking over, accentuating athletes’ physiques through their leotards became a leading goal. Gone were the bold stars and stripes in favor of plain white with high-cut legs.

* * * * * * * * * * *

1996: Patriotism and showmanship marry

The leotards worn in the mid-’90s combined the best of both worlds. Gymnasts got to show off their physiques with a plain white torso, while showing off love of country with decorated shoulders.

* * * * * * * * * * *

2000: Shimmer and shine

The advent of glossier fabrics commenced a new era for leotards. Patriotism made way for glimmer and glam in the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.

* * * * * * * * * * *

2004: Crystals make their debut

In an effort to make pint-sized gymnasts stand out more in large arenas, Team USA began incorporating crystals into its leotards in the mid-aughts.

* * * * * * * * * * *

2008: Art takes over

By the late-aughts, form became as important as function in leotard design. Along with ever-shinier fabrics, the designs often got more elaborate, too.

* * * * * * * * * * *

2012: Hologram fabrics

Leotards got even more flamboyant in this decade when GK Elite, the company that teamed with Under Armour to make Team USA’s leotards, introduced a new fabric called Mystique. It has a hologram effect.

* * * * * * * * * * *

2016: Crystal overload

Reportedly made with 5,000 Swarovski crystals, the leotards Team USA is wearing at the Rio Olympics set a new level in competition bling.

Simone Biles leads a group of five fierce gymnasts representing the United States at the Rio Olympic games. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

More from Rio: 

U.S. women gymnasts gave us all a “good overwhelming” feeling

Ukraine’s strategy in the men’s gymnastics team final leaves everyone baffled

As seen at the Olympics, there is still a lot of ignorance about adoption

Loading...