Note: I’d like to thank Karen Louise Hollis for being a wonderful source of information for my articles. She recently published a Nadia special and I highly recommend you check out her work.
I recently published a 3-part series discussing Elena Davydova’s iconic 1980 flower leotard and highlighted all the other gymnasts who wore it. It quickly became one of my most popular articles. But wherever it was posted (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) there was always a comment comparing it to Elena Mukhina’s trademark flower leotard. This was to be expected as Mukhina’s flower leotard is just as well known/iconic to the era as Davydova’s. They have emerged as two of the most iconic leotards of the era and it is rare for gymnerds to have an online conversation about one, without invoking a comparison to the other.
As you can see where this article is going, I’m going to cite examples of gymnasts besides Elena Mukhina who also wore this leotard. The leotard is frequently described as having a white “polka dot” pattern, but if you look closely they are actually little daisy flowers. Thus giving this leotard its “daisy-dot” nickname. And if you look even closer, each flower has a yellow center.
Mukhina first made this leotard iconic at the 1977 European Championships. Over the next 14 years the leotard would be worn by at least four Soviet gymnasts. That may not sound like a small figure, but for a non-team leotard, to see it appear on that many occasions was significant. Especially when the first and last Soviet gymnast to wear it came 14 years apart. Usually leotards go “out of style” and/or the companies discontinue production of a particular design after only a couple of years.
The first example of another Soviet wearing the leotard occurred during a display tour in 1978. The gymnast in question was Elena Nikolaentseva who isn’t widely known because she never appeared in a World Championships/Olympic lineup. Elena Mukhina famously appeared in a 1978 documentary called You Are in Gymnastics. Ironically the opening shot of Mukhina features her standing next to Nikolaentseva in a lineup. Standing next to Nikolaentseva was Elena Gurina who lived with Mukhina after her injury and served as her primary caretaker.
The 1978 display tour also features a picture of Mukhina while another gymnast (Nikolaentseva) is wearing her trademark daisy-dot leotard. The picture includes some of the biggest names of late 1970s Soviet gymnastics. The gymnast on the right is Ludmilla Gromova, a name few will recognize as she was a tumbler and not an artistic gymnast.
This picture is also a noteworthy example of how camera filters, lighting, and angles can create deceiving interpretations. In the above picture Elena Nikolaentseva appears to be wearing an alternate version of the leotard with a thick white trim around the collar. But as the footage below proves, it is a rounded collar identical to the version worn by Mukhina.
The next Soviet gymnast to wear the famed daisy-dot leotard was Natalia Ilienko who wore it at the start of her career. Ilienko first appeared in it at the 1979 Chunichi Cup, the high profile Japanese competition that was the first time she ever competed outside of Europe. Whereas Elena Mukhina appeared to have abandoned the daisy-dot leotard by the time the World Championships came around, Natalia Ilienko didn’t.
Natalia Ilienko wore the daisy-dot leotard during podium training at the 1981 World Championships. As far as I’m aware, this is the closest the leotard ever came to being worn at the Olympic/World Championships level. Ironically, it wasn’t Elena Mukhina, but the 1981 World Champion on floor, Natalia Ilienko who brought it to the World Championships.
Hilariously, on her second trip to the World Championships in 1983, Natalia Ilienko wore the blue version of Davydova’s trademark flower leotard during podium training. Thus making Ilienko the only gymnast known to have worn both Mukhina’s and Davydova’s trademark flower leotards. In the picture below Natalia Ilienko can be seen wearing yet another flower leotard. Ilienko truly embodied the flower leotard trend that was so popular in her era.
One helpful tip to tell the difference between Elena Mukhina and other Soviet gymnasts in pictures, Mukhina wore the Soviet emblem on her shoulder. Natalia Ilienko and Elena Nikolaentseva wore it on their chest.
The last time the daisy-dot leotard appeared on the gymnastics scene came at a 1991 training camp featuring Soviet juniors. This was one of the last times a lineup of Soviet juniors was ever assembled. The Soviets of the early 1990s are a generation of gymnasts I nickname “the class the Olympics fell on.” As the Soviet Union broke apart into 15 different nations, a landmass that was once limited to sending only six gymnast to an Olympic Games could theoretically send as many as 90 gymnasts.
This created a boon for many gymnasts who had virtually no chance of making a lineup in the Soviet program, but quickly became leading gymnasts in the smaller programs of ex-Soviet countries that replaced it. At the 1996 Olympics 24% of the participants in women’s artistic gymnastics came from a post-Soviet nation.
There are five gymnasts in the above picture who would go on to compete in the Olympics, Irina Evdokimova (Kazakhstan), Elena Shapornaya (Ukraine), Olga Kozhevnikova (Kazakhstan), Evgenia Kuznetsova (Russia/Bulgaria), and Lilia Podkopayeva (Ukraine). Two more would participate in a World Championships, Tatiana Malaya (Ukraine) and Natalia Bobrova (Russia).
The above picture is historic because it captures so many Olympians, from different nations, and before they were famous. But another interesting feature of the picture is that one of the unidentified gymnasts is wearing the daisy-dot leotard. The pattern Elena Mukhina made so iconic was being worn up until the final days of Soviet gymnastics.
But there was one non-Soviet gymnast who wore the daisy-dot leotard, and it just so happened to be the most iconic gymnast of the pre-Simone era, Nadia Comaneci. But the version Nadia wore was quite different from Mukhina’s. Nadia’s version has the same daisy dot pattern, with the exception of a triangular sheet of fabric stretching from the left shoulder, across the chest, and down to the hip.
It was one of the strangest leotards in gymnastics history, and its even stranger considering the two gymnasts involved. Mukhina and Nadia were staunch rivals during their careers. The 1977 European Championships in which Mukhina made the daisy-dot leotard famous was especially contentious between the Romanian and Soviet delegations. When Mukhina and Nadia shared the gold medal on bars, during the medal ceremony at no point did either gymnast appear to even acknowledge the presence of the other. If they did, the moment wasn’t captured by the television broadcast which record the medal ceremony in full.
Which is why it was startling to find that one year later in 1978, Nadia was seen wearing a leotard that bears a close resemble to the trademark leotard of her rival. Nadia wore it while visiting West Germany.
The daisy-dot leotard is a rare example of a leotard that is as visually appealing on the backside as it is on the frontside. In an era where technological considerations forced gymnastics magazines to publish most of their photos in black and white, the daisy-dot leotard was well suited for these conditions. Because the white daisies and dark blue base color have a stark contrast, the leotard holds up surprisingly well when photographed in black and white. Mukhina’s leotard was the right leotard for the right era.
When Mukhina performed her trademark full-twisting Korbut-flip while wearing her trademark daisy-dot leotard, she produced a highlight reel that was gymnastics at its very best.