How women's Olympic leotards have evolved over the last 85 years

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How women's Olympic leotards have evolved over the last 85 years
  • Women's Olympic gymnastics leotards have dramatically changed since the first competition in 1936.
  • The leotards used to be much plainer and had little to no embellishment.
  • But crystals - and lots of them - have become the dominating trend since 2000.

When women's gymnastics was first introduced to the Olympics in 1936, leotards were quite different than they are today.

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In 1948, Cissie Davies's uniform at the London Games even had a skirt.

In 1948, Cissie Davies's uniform at the London Games even had a skirt.
Cissie Davies competes on the balance beam in the 1948 London Games. AP
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They were also much plainer.

They were also much plainer.
Russia's Larisa Latynina performs on the balance beam at the Melbourne Games in 1956. AP
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Nadia Comaneci wore a humble white leotard with thin stripes when she scored her historic perfect 10 on the uneven bars in 1976.

Nadia Comaneci wore a humble white leotard with thin stripes when she scored her historic perfect 10 on the uneven bars in 1976.
Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal Games AP/Suzanne Vlamis
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Many early leotards also had small embellishments on the chest.

Many early leotards also had small embellishments on the chest.
Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia, far right, waves after winning a gold medal in the vault at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. AP/Anonymous
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In the early 1980s, leotard manufacturers began using a new material called lycra that made the garments more form-fitting.

In the early 1980s, leotard manufacturers began using a new material called lycra that made the garments more form-fitting.
Nadia Comaneci, left, shakes the hand of Soviet gymnast and all-around gold medalist Yelena Davydova at the 1980 Moscow Games. AP
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Mary Lou Retton introduced the world to bold, graphic designs with her stars and stripes leotard at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Mary Lou Retton introduced the world to bold, graphic designs with her stars and stripes leotard at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Mary Lou Retton was the first American woman to win the all-around gold medal at the Olympics. AP/Rusty Kennedy, Lionel Cironneau
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Martha and Bela Karolyi - who coached Team USA from 1988 to 1996 - are responsible for many developments in leotard fashion. In the 1990s, they put American gymnasts in white leotards to show off their six-packs.

Martha and Bela Karolyi - who coached Team USA from 1988 to 1996 - are responsible for many developments in leotard fashion. In the 1990s, they put American gymnasts in white leotards to show off their six-packs.
Team USA's Shannon Miller performs on the balance beam at the 1996 Summer Games. AP/Ed Reinke
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Crushed velvet - a fleeting 1990s trend - made an appearance on China's leotards at the Sydney games in 2000.

Crushed velvet - a fleeting 1990s trend - made an appearance on China's leotards at the Sydney games in 2000.
Liu Xuan of China with her gold medal for balance beam in 2000. AP/Victoria Arocho
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But the new millennium also brought about a more enduring trend in gymnastics leotards: sparkly crystals.

But the new millennium also brought about a more enduring trend in gymnastics leotards: sparkly crystals.
Gymnasts from Romania and Russia at the Sydney Games. AP/Amy Sancetta
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Metallic fabrics also became more popular.

Metallic fabrics also became more popular.
Carly Patterson of Team USA performs a floor exercise during the Athens Games in 2004. Getty Images/Stuart Hannagan
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At the Beijing Games, graphic leotards had a brief moment.

At the Beijing Games, graphic leotards had a brief moment.
Gymnasts from China, Ukraine, and North Korea compete in 2008. AP/Odd Andersen, Rob Carr, Matt Dunham
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But sparkles had already become the prevailing style. Nastia Liukin wore a leotard with 184 crystals when she won the all-around gold medal in 2008.

But sparkles had already become the prevailing style. Nastia Liukin wore a leotard with 184 crystals when she won the all-around gold medal in 2008.
Nastia Liukin with her gold medal in Beijing. AP/Rob Carr
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Then, Gabby Douglas wore 1,188 crystals when she won the London all-around title in 2012.

Then, Gabby Douglas wore 1,188 crystals when she won the London all-around title in 2012.
Gabby Douglas competes for the women's all-around title in 2012. Getty Images/Streeter Lecka
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Team USA wore leotards studded with 5,000 crystals each for the Rio Olympics in 2016. If they were sold in stores, the leotards would retail for $1,200 each.

Team USA wore leotards studded with 5,000 crystals each for the Rio Olympics in 2016. If they were sold in stores, the leotards would retail for $1,200 each.
The US women's team in 2016. Getty Images/Laurence Griffiths
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"We may have hit peak crystal," Kelly McKeown, a designer executive for one of Team USA's outfitters, told The Times in 2016. "It's difficult for me to imagine how we could get more crystals on."

"We may have hit peak crystal," Kelly McKeown, a designer executive for one of Team USA's outfitters, told The Times in 2016. "It's difficult for me to imagine how we could get more crystals on."
Simone Biles in the Rio team final. Getty Images/Ezra Shaw
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As she's continued to completely dominate the sport since Rio, Simone Biles has used her leotards to "hit back at the haters."

As she's continued to completely dominate the sport since Rio, Simone Biles has used her leotards to "hit back at the haters."
Simone Biles at the Senior Women's competition of the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Championships at Dickies Arena on June 4, 2021 in Texas. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Biles made headlines when she began competing with a diamond-encrusted goat on her leotards, alluding to the fact that many call her the "G.O.A.T" (Greatest Of All Time) in gymnastics.

"I just hope that kids growing up watching this don't or aren't ashamed of being good at whatever they do," she told Marie Claire in June. "I want kids to learn that, yes, it's OK to acknowledge that you're good or even great at something."

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Biles returned to the Olympics this week, and Team USA's leotards are proof that the sparkle trend definitely isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Biles returned to the Olympics this week, and Team USA's leotards are proof that the sparkle trend definitely isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Simone Biles during the women's qualification for the gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics on July 25, 2021. Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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At this year's Olympics, it was also explained why Team USA wear different leotard colors during the competition.

At this year's Olympics, it was also explained why Team USA wear different leotard colors during the competition.
(From L-R): Grace McCullum, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, Simone Biles, Mykayla Skinner and Jade Carey of Team USA on day two of the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Laurie Hernandez, who won gold with the USA's gymnastics team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, explained that the gymnasts wearing blue leotards are competing in the team events, while those in the red leotards are only competing in individual events.

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But this Olympics has seen new controversy over leotards. Germany's gymnastics team is wearing full bodysuits in protest of the sexualization of the sport.

But this Olympics has seen new controversy over leotards. Germany's gymnastics team is wearing full bodysuits in protest of the sexualization of the sport.
German Olympian Sarah Voss at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Fabrice Coffrini/Getty

The protest first started in April when German gymnast Sarah Voss wore a bodysuit at the European Artistic Gymnastic Championships.

"Every time you don't feel safe it's distracting you from what you want to perform," Voss told the BBC at the time. "I think that feeling safe and not thinking about what other people can or cannot see is quite relieving when you can compete like that."

On Sunday, Voss and her teammates all wore bodysuits while competing in the gymnastics trials.

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