The Leotard

Jules Léotard, 1838-1870

French acrobat Jules Léotard developed the art of trapeze when he first performed a three bar aerial performance on November 12, 1859. He wore a one-piece jersey garment for his trapeze performances that was called a maillot during his time, but that now bears his name. Jules Léotard was immortalized by George Laybourne as the subject of his 1867 popular song, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. Leotard died in 1870 from smallpox. ‘Leotard’ entered the English vocabulary in 1886. The earlier term maillot became the French word for a one piece bathing suit.

Left: woman in leotard, c. 1885

Canadian Fashion Connection – Lewis Lacey

Lewis Lacey, 1930s

Lewis Lacey was born in Montreal on February 17, 1887. In 1915 Lacey won the Argentine open in polo and became Argentina’s second 10-goal polo player. He then served for England during World War I before returning to Argentina to pursue his polo career.

In 1920, Lacey opened a sports shop in Buenos Aires, and continued to play polo, for both English and Argentinian teams until he retired in 1937. The short sleeved jersey shirts worn in the 1923 season by the Hurlingham Polo Team of Buenos Aires were created by Lacey and featured an emblem of a mounted polo player on the left breast. 

Polo player, c. 1910 (not the insignia used by Lacey)

In a similar manner, French Tennis star Rene Lacoste, known as ‘le Crocodile’ for his snappy style, began producing a polo shirt with a crocodile logo on the left breast in 1933. The shirts were marketed by Izod in the United States beginning in 1951.

In 1967, Ralph Lauren adopted the brand line ‘Polo’ for his men’s collection and first used a polo player motif in advertising in 1972, adding the emblem to all his polo shirts in 1978. However, Alberto Vannucci was selling shirts in Buenos Aires with a similar polo player motif. Lauren sued Vannucci, who proved his version predated Lauren’s because it was created in 1923 for Lewis Lacey. The polo line frequently ends up in court with the United States Polo Association over the right to use a polo player motif in the production of clothing and accessories.

A hat with pithy nuance

Critical tweets and hashtags quickly filled social media this past Friday when Melania Trump wore a pith helmet for a Safari tour in Kenya. The New York Times quoted Kim Yi Donne, a political-science professor who specializes in African politics at the University of California, “When people think of Africa, they have these standard narratives. Her attire is a signal of her understanding of what Africa is in 2018. It’s tired and its old and it’s inaccurate.”

Many feel the pith helmet is a symbol of European colonialism, but it wasn’t created as a means of expressing authority or repression, only as a way for Europeans to survive equatorial heat and tropical humidity. If the pith helmet is a symbol of hot climate imperialism, then a similar argument could be made for parkas and pack boots in former cold climate colonies.

The pith used in the helmet’s construction was acquired from the spongey core of the stem of the shola plant that grows abundantly in marshy areas of East India (West Bengal). The light-weight pith, which absorbs moisture and can be easily carved, was traditionally used for creating Bengali wedding headgear.

Sometime during the 1820s to 1840s, sun helmets (known as shola topee in Hindi) began to be made by Indians for Europeans who found their straw hats became sticky and limp in the high humidity and heat of the tropical Indian climate. Pith sun hats retained their shape while the hygroscopic qualities of the pith wicked sweat away from the head.

1858 design for pith helmet

In the 1850s the British army were still wearing shakos – a tall Napoleonic era hat style that survives today as part of the marching band uniform. To replace the shako, the pith helmet was adapted for military use. The helmet, which was covered in cotton, had a high crown to  prevent sweat buildup, and added ventilation holes on the side and top for air circulation. The helmets could be soaked in water so that on a hot day, the head was cooled as the water evaporated. A wide, sloping brim to keep sun and rain off the wearer’s face and neck also provided a place to fasten a leather or metal chin strap when not in use.

Soldiers in the Middle East quickly learned they were targets in their bright white helmets, so they dyed the cotton coverings with tea and dirtied them with ‘khak’ the Persian word for dirt from which we get the word khaki.

By the late 1860s, the military were making their helmets from cork or metal instead of pith. The Northwest Mounted Police in Canada even adopted the style in the 1870s (pictured right). A British style was standardized and became known as the Wolseley helmet in 1899, named after, but not designed by, Sir Garnet Wolseley. This modified version, had an apex at the front and back and is still worn by many regiments including the Queen’s Life Guards.

By the late 19thcentury, the genderless civilian style of pith helmet had a rounder shape and flatter top and was known as a ‘Bombay bowler’. Made in India for export, the hats were mostly worn by colonials, expats, missionaries and travellers around the equatorial world: Caribbean islands, The Amazon, Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

U.S. postal service helmet

The pith helmet style became a prototype for soldier’s ‘tin hats’ during World War I, workmen’s hard hats, and polo helmets, which in turn influenced the design of today’s bicycle helmets. The U.S. post office even adopted pith helmet styles for mail carriers that are part of the current uniform.

Dressed for Safari, c. 1930

Pith helmets fell from general use for two reasons. Firstly, as colonies gained independence after World War II, indigenous denizens wore their own traditional styles of headwear that predated the use of pith helmets: turbans, thobes, fezzes, kufis… Although, many of the newly independent countries retained pith helmets for their military and police uniforms. Secondly, travel changed in the postwar world. Extended holidays that began with long ocean voyages to exotic tropical locales were displaced by jetting off for short trips to air conditioned resorts.

The pith helmet is still being made and worn. One current manufacturer in Pakistan has been making them since 1928. This is a style that was not appropriated from any indigenous culture. It was gender non-specific, and was the result of scientific design to aid air movement, moisture wicking, and sun protection. It was not produced by slave labour, and it was never restricted to or from anyone who wanted to wear one. The style’s association with colonialism is superficial – based on it being originally made for and worn by primarily white people who did not have suitable headwear from their own wardrobes to wear in hot and humid climates.

Classics – The Breton

I am starting a new category today – Classics – those garments that keep on going years after they were introduced. First up – The Breton.

The horizontally striped blue and white T-shirt has been credited to Chanel who was inspired by the French Navy, but there is more to the story.

The earliest images of sailors wearing striped tops are found in cartoons (mostly English) from the Napoleonic era and shortly afterwards, when sailors had no defined uniform. British officers had adopted standardized uniforms in the 1740s, but sailors and fishermen wore ‘slops’, a 19th century term for ready-made garments. The captain may have had specific rules about what his crew wore, but there was no standard for the entire navy.


Slops consisting of jersey undershirts made of fine knitted wool (and later cotton), full cut shirts, and tunics were smart choices because one size fit most men. Most sailors wore their shirts and tunics for cold weather and shore leave, but donned only the jersey undershirts for daily work.

While checks were the most common form of decoration for cloth (the warp and weft threads being dyed before weaving), stripes were the most obvious and uncomplicated design for knitted garments because the yarn was dyed before being knitted laterally, creating horizontal stripes.

Photo taken in 1869 of Guy Mainwaring and Lord Charles Beresford, British officers in the navy who dressed as sailors for a play, presumably as a French sailor (left) and British sailor (right).

The most common, colourfast and affordable, colour to produce at the time was navy blue. It was the dominant colour of military uniforms throughout Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Green was occasionally used, which was made from a combination of navy blue over-dyed with yellow, and red, which was colourfast but more expensive, was most often used as an accent, although Britain liked their army in red coats.

In 1857, the British army standardized the sailor uniform, France followed in 1858. The French adopted the striped wool jersey to be worn under a tunic. In France, the style was known as a Marinières. They were made in Brittany (aka Breton) from sheep’s wool from the town of St. James in Normandy (near the border of Brittany.)

The blue stripe became associated with all things nautical; men’s bathing suits were often made up in blue and white stripes in the late 19th century. There is a myth about Chanel including the Breton in her early collections, and even wearing it herself as early as 1913, but there is no evidence of either story being true, although she did like using jersey material for her summer clothes.

The earliest evidence of the Breton making the leap into fashion dates from 1923 when the American couple Gerald and Sara Murphy, who took to regularly holidaying in France during the summer (they were also early proponents of suntanning), bought several Breton tops from a marine shop in Marseille for themselves and guests. Their guest list variously included: Cole Porter, Man Ray, Dorothy Parker, Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

From there the Breton became a standard piece of sportswear, worn as is, or reinterpreted in fashion collections. When worn with a beret, it even became a cliche of French style.