The invention of trapeze, and the tights that went with it
“Maybe someone needed a better way to swing in the branches of a tree?”
That’s probably not a concern most people worry about, but then again, it’s hard to tie something like a trapeze to any practical purpose. Even after a week at circus camp, my nine-year-old was clearly stretching to figure out what could have inspired the design of such a simple but specific device.
“They didn’t have airplanes then, so was part of a blimp?”
To be fair, the origin story of the trapeze isn’t necessarily intuitive. A young man named Jules, who had grown up learning to climb and tumble in his father’s gymnasium, saw ropes hanging over the accompanying swimming pool. He placed a cross bar between two ropes, supposedly to use as a chin-up bar. Apparently it didn’t take long for other uses of a swinging bar to be found, because within a year this acrobat had put together a performance in his home town of Toulouse, France.
Within three years of that first performance in 1856, Jules had not only moved past his would-be career as a lawyer to work in the Cirque Napoleon in Paris, but he had a second act figured out as well. On November 12th, he swung from one trapeze to another for the first time, gripping audiences’ attention as never before. While the swimming pool was traded for a set of mattresses, more trapezes were added to the performance, allowing Jules to do back-to-back somersaults between five different swings.
“Was his name Mr. Trapeze?”
No- the name trapeze probably came from the Latin trapezium, referring to an “irregular quadrilateral,” like a trapezoid. That’s not to say that young Jules’ name was really forgotten though, since his last name was Leotard.
To safely swing and climb among the ropes and bars of his trapezes, Jules Leotard created a form-fitting body suit out of wool. While it was probably quite hot to wear, the elastic nature of wool allowed him to move without being hindered or snagged on any equipment. It also helped Mr. Leotard hold the attention of many audience members, as the tight outfit revealed his physique in a way unheard of at the time. The combined spectacle of the trapeze and costuming helped make Leotard quite successful, earning him plenty of money and notoriety, including the song the “The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze.”
Leotard’s body suit wasn’t referred to as a ‘leotard’ until around ten years after he died in 1870. As eye-popping as the garment was when it was first created, it’s now fairly standard for athletes and dancers around the world. That’s not to say that Jule’s first passion has died out though- as recently as 2013, performer Han Ho Song performed five consecutive somersaults off a trapeze in Stuttgart, Germany. The key difference is that he updated Leotard’s trick from 1859, making all five revolutions in a single jump.
Source: Trapeze origins, Vertical Wise