It’s hard to imagine Simone Biles, America’s most decorated gymnast, performing her
signature double-double “Biles” dismount off the balance beam in baggy knee-length culottes or a loose-fitting romper. And yet, that’s exactly what gymnasts wore when competing at some of the earliest modern Olympic Games. But just as the skills showcased in gymnastics have evolved over time to become significantly more difficult, Olympic gymnastics uniforms have also changed.
For 32 years, Olympic gymnastics remained closed to women. In fact, women weren’t officially allowed to compete in Olympic gymnastics until the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. Despite being barred from official competition, many women’s gymnastics teams did attend early Olympics, showcasing their skills in non-competitive displays. But the uniforms those teams donned bear little resemblance to the skin-tight, high-cut leotards we see women’s gymnastics teams wear today.
But as ideas about modesty began to change, so too did Olympic gymnastics uniforms. By the 1930s and ‘40s, we began to see some women’s teams competing in leotards cut low around the thigh to provide maximum coverage. As we entered the 1980s, teams began to embrace bright colors and eye-catching patterns. In the 2000s and 2010s,
sparkles and crystals became all the rage among Olympic gymnasts. Now, German gymnasts at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo have the potential to bring about a new trend in Olympic gymnastics fashion: full-body suits.
From culottes shorts to baggy-waisted rompers to skin-tight sparkly leotards, here’s how Olympic gymnastics fashion has evolved over the last 125 years:
1896 Olympics PA Images Archive/PA Images/Getty Images
Members of the German Olympic gymnastics team pose in uniforms that look suspiciously like belted trousers during the very first of the modern Olympic Games — the 1896 Olympics held in Athens, Greece.
1908 Olympics Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
While women’s gymnastics didn’t become an official Olympic event until 1928,
non-competitive gymnastics displays were open to women during some early Games. For example, a team of Danish female gymnasts demonstrated their skills at the 1908 London Olympics while wearing a uniform of long sleeves blouses and culotte shorts. 1920 Olympics Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
By 1920, men’s Olympic gymnastics uniforms had evolved only slightly to include a sleeveless or short-sleeved shirt and a more athletic-fit pant, as seen on a team practicing configurations at the Games in Antwerp, Belgium.
1928 Olympics George Rinhart/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
By the time women’s gymnastics was officially introduced as an Olympic event in 1928, many women’s teams — including the French team seen here — had ditched the culotte shorts in favor of loose-fitting rompers.
1936 Olympics Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Women’s Olympic gymnastics uniforms continued to evolve, with many teams favoring a combo of a tighter fitting short-short and sleeveless tank. Above, German gymnast Kate Sohnemann performs on the balance beam at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
1948 Olympics Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Members of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team watch their teammate Marian Barone on the balance beam at the 1948 Olympics in London, England. For the 1948 Games, the U.S. team favored a loosely-fitted leotard with a high neckline and a modest, low-cut leg opening that provided maximum bum coverage.
1948 Olympics Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
It’s worth noting, however, that not all women’s gymnastics teams competing at the 1948 Olympics had adopted leotards as their uniforms. Great Britain’s team, for example, continued to wear a sleeveless romper with loose-fitting shorts as seen on gymnast Cissie Davies above.
For the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina wore a long-sleeved, skin-tight leotard reminiscent of what Olympic gymnasts wear today.
1964 Olympics Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
But while women’s Olympic gymnastics attire underwent a noticable evolution, becoming both shorter and tighter, men’s uniforms continued to feature long pants and short-sleeved or sleeveless tops consistent with what Italian gymnast Franco Menichelli wore to the 1964 Games.
1968 Olympics NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos/Getty Images
By 1968, women’s gymnastics teams around the world had fully adopted the long-sleeved leotard as seen on U.S. gymnast Cathy Rigby, above. However, leotard designs and embellishments remained muted as teams opted for solid-color leotards with a simple white detail around the neckline.
1980 Olympics Don Morley/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By the 1980 Games in Moscow, Olympic gymnastics uniforms had become more expressive with teams favoring designs that included multiple colors, patterns, stripes, or other embellishments.
1984 Olympics David Madison/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
After earning a perfect 10-point score for
her floor routine while wearing a leotard designed to feature elements of the American flag, Mary Lou Retton of the United States became the first American to receive the all-around gold medal in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics. 1996 Olympics ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastic team continued to favor patriotic designs, such as the one Dominique Dawes wore during the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
2008 Olympics LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images
Of course, the United States isn’t the only country to have included design elements that speak to aspects of their nation’s culture or history in their Olympic women’s gymnastics team uniforms. Above, China’s Shanshan Li wore a red and gold leotard decorated with what looks to be a plum blossom. In China, red and gold are colors often used to symbolize good fortune and prosperity, while the plum blossom is the national flower of the Republic of China.
2012 Olympics Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
As Gabby Douglas scooped two gold medals for the United States at the 2012 Games, Olympic leotard fashion sparked outrage among commentators at Fox News. Their issue? The U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team was wearing bright pink leotards with a metallic finish known as Mystique.
Fox News accused U.S. gymnasts of not being patriotic, citing the lack of stars and stripes or red-white-and-blue coloring on their leotards. 2016 Olympics Tim Clayton - Corbis/Corbis Sport/Getty Images
Although heavily embellished with thousands of crystals (thanks largely to what
Elle has reported is ice skating’s influence on gymnastics), leotards worn by the 2016 U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team once again featured design elements reminiscent of the American flag. 2021 Olympics
Sarah Voss and other members of Germany’s 2021 women’s gymnastics team are hoping to spark something of a revolution in Olympic gymnastics fashion at the Tokyo Games. In an effort to stand against the sexualization happening in the sport, Voss and her teammates are wearing full-body suits instead of the traditional high-cut leotards that have become common. “We hope
gymnasts uncomfortable in the usual outfits will feel emboldened to follow our example," Voss told the BBC.