The Dangerously Seductive Power of Leopard Print
The highly graphic skins of wild animals evolved as a form of camouflage so that
they could blend in with their surroundings, yet they have been coopted by humans over
the last two centuries as a way of standing out. Animal prints evoke an exotic other that has become more mythical than real. Skins and drawing brought back to Europe by explorers symbolized an unknowable unknown—their stories of these animals stoking fear and curiosity. While all animal prints based on wild animals are encoded with this exoticism and mystique, it is the big cats who bring to their prints an element of danger—the beauty of the herbivore zebra and giraffe is eclipsed by the predatory sleekness of the leopard and cheetah. As a burlesque historian, Jo Weldon writes, “The
desire to dress like a dangerous animal has a specific intention to it that simply dressing like a pretty animal doesn’t convey… The print expresses the power they feel within or makes them feel armored against the power they may lack.”
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“Leopard print” has become a catch-all term for all big cat prints, which upon closer examination might instead be, most often, a jaguar, ocelot, or cheetah, or more rarely, a clouded leopard, snow leopard, bobcat or black panther. Leopards are most commonly found in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and broken black rosettes on a cream-to-golden ground mark their coat. These skins made their first recorded appearance as a part of a dress on the goddesses of Ancient Egypt and Greece. The difficulty in killing a leopard (without being harmed oneself) lent them a rarity that kept their skins reserved for royalty and warriors. Even once international trade developed, they retained this designation—leopard skin muffs were supposedly a special craze amongst the French and British aristocracy in 1702.
While rare and exotic furs had been the subject of fascination for millennia, the first mention of fabric woven or embroidered to look like leopard skin was in the late eighteenth century with the macaroni’s, young dandies known for their over-the-top fashions. Their adoption of the “effeminate” leopard print (since all cats were associated with the kitchen and women), while ridiculed, began to influence the fashion news and by 1804, the trend had spread: “Large silk shawls of a new fabric in imitation of Leopard spots, are much worn for the opera and play.”
After falling out of fashion for much of the nineteenth-century, real leopard skins reappeared in the 1910s—considered strictly for outdoor wear, it was primarily used as trim on coats and hats. A full-length evening wrap all of leopard-skin was described by
Vogue in 1911 as a “picturesque motoring wrap,” while the front cover of the October
15, 1914 issue featured an illustration by E.M.A. Steinmetz of a long black jacket with
leopard collar and cuffs worn over a full black skirt with leopard hem–a bulbous leopard
fur muff completed the outfit. It was not just the original skins that captivated fashionable women—printed and woven leopard patterns prowled back into the news for the first time in over 100 years. The famous couturier Lucile showed an evening gown of bronze
and gold metal brocade with leopard print velvet girdle in her fall 1913 collection, as part of a trend for using the plushness of velvet to mimic the texture and look of animal
fur. By 1924 leopard spots were appearing on all kinds of luxury fabrics—a nod to the
exoticism so beloved during that period. While Josephine Baker walked her pet cheetah
around Paris, Gabrielle Chanel began using Bianchini-Ferier silks printed with leopard
spots for dresses and coat linings (so successful were these prints that the orders were
three times what the textile maker could supply).
Nineteen-thirties femme fatales (on-screen and in real life) often wore a coat trimmed with leopard cuffs and collar with matching hat and muff. Whether real or faux, the style became a defining one for the era, which was recreated in the early 1970s by the retro-flavored Biba in London. In the mid-1930s cottons and “flannelettes” printed with leopard spots brought the pattern to the mass-market in a variety of unnatural shades. Paying homage to his muse Mitzah Bricard—who famously wore something leopard print every day Christian Dior included in his history-changing first collection in 1947 a figure-hugging sheath of leopard print silk with a wide belt, called “Jungle.” He later went on to feature the print in many collections and famously said of it, “If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.” For him and many others, leopard print was for mature, powerful and sexually experienced women—those who intimately understood the danger and seductiveness of their own sexual power. Cinematic stars like Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe were clad in leopard print to denote their bombshell natures, while Joan Crawford’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard wore leopard print in a desperate attempt to recapture the glamorous success of her youth.
The sensual nature of the print made it the ideal pattern for the most intimate clothing of the day. Pinups of the 1940s posed in skintight, leopard skin bathing suits, while in 1953 venerable lingerie company Vanity Fair came out with their first line of printed bras, underwear and slips—all in leopard print. While many, more traditional women thought the pattern too attention-grabbing for daily wear, it was just right for an intimate secret: “The leopard print was made to feel exclusive, something a woman chose for herself, and to see her in it was a special privilege accorded only to her lovers…Naturally it was a sensation.” By 1960 it was such a beloved fashion fabric that other animal prints were discussed in the press as “the new leopard print”: “a silk dress python-printed in a shade between coral and brick, fashion-destined for as many lives as the leopard print that began in the ‘Thirties.” Leopard prints evolution from raciness to respectability was enhanced when Jackie Kennedy wore a coat made of real leopard skins in 1961, designed for her by Oleg Cassini and produced by furrier Ben Reig—it was such a stylistic success that nearly 250,000 leopards were killed for their skins in the following few years, leading to the Endangered Species Act of 1969.
With real leopard skins illegal, leopard print in the 1970s began to become thought of as trashy and in bad taste. Though Diane von Furstenberg produced her iconic wrap-dress in the pattern, during that decade it was more commonly associated with drag queens like Divine, glam rock stars like Marc Bolan, and punks like Debbie Harry. Leopard prints reemergence into high fashion began in the 1980s with designers like Patrick Kelly and Moschino, who used it on whimsical designs that played with its tacky reputation, yet it was in the 1990s that leopard print really became the glamour pattern de jour. Azzedine Alaïa produced his signature sexy knits in leopard print for his now legendary fall/winter 1991 collection, which “were not only transcendent, but transformative, adding a new and feral sense of “animal magnetism” to his body-con silhouettes.” That same season Dolce & Gabbana also first used leopard print, in what would become one of the house’s trademarks—harking back to the movie stars of the 1950s, they produced voluminous fake furs coats shown over retro-style girdles. Since then they have used leopard print on every possible fabric, for every possible garment—from chiffon evening dresses to three-piece suits to bras and tights. Gianni Versace combined leopard print with gold scrollwork in 1992 to bring the pattern to the height of glitz and glamour. Robert Cavalli has also made leopard print a key part of his design aesthetic and has been quoted as saying, “I copied the dress of an animal because I love to copy God. I think God is the most fantastic designer.”
Leopard prints ability to morph and shift to fit many different visions of womanhood (from royalty to vamp to pin-up to middle-class wife to trailer trash to supermodel) helps it retain its consistent place on catwalks around the world. It reappears in collections referencing diverse historic epochs, locations or pop culture moments, always ready to camouflage itself into the designer’s vision of fashion. Instead of using it as a pattern, Alessandro Michele at Gucci has printed and knit actual leopards onto t-shirts and sweaters. Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga has used leopard print faux fur in layered parkas, while Tom Ford sent out models in skintight, cherry red sequin leopard print suits. All of them are drawing on the energy lent to the print by the original animal—dangerous, seductive, and playful—while alluding to the beauty, innocence and savagery of nature. With such complex symbolism it is no surprise fashion designers and mass-market merchandisers who want to add a frisson of excitement to their collections continually revisit big cat prints.