Made for prowling – a short history of the leopard print

Made for prowling – a short history of the leopard print

by marlies|dekkers

Once reserved for royalty, the sexy, wild yet sophisticated leopard print is now a favorite of both fashionistas and feminine feminists. But like the prowling leopard herself, that magnificent Queen of the Night, these spots cannot be tamed so easily…

“If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it,” fashion designer Christian Dior said when he presented a leopard-print dress in his ‘New Look’ collection. Throughout the ages, from Seshat, the Egyptian goddess of wisdom, to rapper L’il Kim, squatting in a leopard-print thong with her legs spread, women have worn leopard to project fierceness and independence. It’s a pattern that evokes strong feelings. We feel desire but we know it’s dangerous. As writer Fay Weldon describes in her wonderful book ‘Fierce: The History of Leopard Print’: we love it or hate it, yet we cannot ignore it. It catches the eye. It may be ‘hot’ one season and ’trashy’ the next, but for those who refuse to blend in, leopard print will always be in fashion.

A symbol of wealth and status, leopard fur used to be claimed by the rich and powerful, from African kings to 17th century French and Italian nobility. But with the introduction of mass-produced fabrics in the 20th century, leopard became available to a much wider audience. By debuting leopard on the catwalk, not as a pelt, but as a print, Christian Dior showed the fashion world in 1947 that you can have the pattern without the pain. Occasionally, real leopard fur would still be worn, most famously in 1962 by Jackie Kennedy. The popularity of her leopard-skin coat led to the death of as many as 250,000 leopards (according to the guilt-wrecked designer of the coat, Oleg Cassini). Finally in 1975, exotic furs would become officially outlawed.

Meanwhile, leopard print had been embraced by a new generation of feminists and fashion rebels. Worn by femme fatales like Elizabeth Taylor and Eartha Kitt (who liked to pose head-to-toe in the wild print, nonchalantly holding a cheetah on a leash) the pattern exuded sexual freedom. These women hunted purely for pleasure! By the time the 70s swung around, leopard print was considered ’trashy’ and ’tacky’ by the tamed masses. Oh well, this only made it more popular in the underground night scene. Here, punks and hipsters like Grace Jones and Iggy Pop understood: like the leopard whose powers come alive at night, this print was made for prowling. Sprint forward 20 years, and leopard spots have conquered the streets and catwalks. From Beyoncé shaking her stuff in Balmain to then-British prime minister Theresa May strutting into parliament in her signature leopard heels; women from all walks of life now proudly owned their spots. The message? “We will be seen, but claws out if you come too close”.

It’s quite ironic: a pattern that helps leopards blend into the shadows makes people stand out. But why do we find it so irresistibly sexy? Thanks to a phenomenon called ‘misattribution of arousal’, our deeply-embedded physiological response to the ‘danger’ of the animal print is interpreted by our brains as a feeling of arousal. (The Zufari zoo in London even banned guests from wearing leopard prints, believing it has the same effect on the animals themselves!). Perhaps this is why we keep being drawn to the print, generation after generation, fashion comeback after fashion comeback: to keep our inner wildness alive. As leopard print-obsessed photographer Émilie Régnier put it so beautifully: “We cannot choose the skin we’re born in, but we can choose the skin we’re showing.”

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