Bonnie August, who pioneered a new way of dressing for women with her bodywear collections based on the leotard and tights basic to ballet garb, died Saturday of ovarian cancer in New York City. She was 56.
August perfected the "disco" look with a stretchy unitard, a one-piece bodysuit, worn with a flowing wraparound skirt, which became a fashion uniform of the late-1970s disco era. She was among the first to apply bright color patterns and prints to the exercise clothing that dancers and other fitness buffs wore to classes. Earlier, black had been the dominant color.
As a designer for Danskin from 1975 to 1983, August helped move a full range of bodywear styles out of dance and exercise rooms onto city streets. Stirrup tights, leggings, tunics and cropped tops became part of many women's weekend and after-work wardrobe.
Recalling the start of the trend, August credited the 1977 movie "Saturday Night Fever," which captured the disco scene. "I was one of the first to create a multipurpose leotard that could go from the dance studio to the street," she later said.
For her innovations, August was awarded a Coty, fashion's highest honor, in 1978. Her designs have been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the museum at New York's Fashion Institute, among others.
In 1981, she wrote a book filled with diagrams and sketches, "The Complete Bonnie August Dress Thin System," published by Rawson, Wade. "I believe the body should be celebrated, and there is no one ideal body," she said about the book in an interview with Fairchild Publications in 2001.
In 1984, August launched her own label, Bonnie August Active Wear and Body Wear, in a license agreement with Jacques Moret Inc. She continued to design cutting-edge styles, adding bicycle tights and capri tights, lace leggings and other items that reflected fashion trends.
She was born in River Edge, N.J. Her father was a plumbing manufacturer's representative, and her mother was a homemaker. August graduated from Syracuse University in New York and worked for Mademoiselle magazine as a guest editor, and later as an accessories designer, before she was hired by Danskin in New York City.
She had studied dance, and she often visited fitness clubs and dance centers around New York City after work for inspiration.
"A lot of fashion design has to do with gut feeling, creativity and an instinct for what people will be wanting," August said in an interview with Crain's New York Business in 1986.
She was diagnosed as having cancer in 1997. Four years later, when her health had temporarily improved, she launched an online catalog business, donating a percentage of each sale to cancer research and health services.
That business, a joint venture with Wells Hosiery, closed last year.
She is survived by her son, Bryan; her stepson, Nicholas; her sister Marilyn; and her father, Ralph.