I am woman hear me roar: charting the rich and exotic evolution of leopard print

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Harriet Hall
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Add this article to your list of favourites features editor, Harriet Hall, has always had a penchant for a certain print: leopard. Try as she might, nothing has succeeded in distracting her from the lure of the big feline's coat (but faux, of course - she's a vegetarian, after all). Here, she charts the evolution of the most mercurial motif in fashion.

Despite the continual ebb and flow of fashion fads, the exotic, predatory motif of the leopard is somehow, always in style.

This season, leopard print is back on the rails in abundance, creeping back into our lives as if its the most innovative style with which we’ve ever been presented - and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it.

Each time the print makes a comeback, I make a point of stocking up, because - after a 10-year love affair with the spotty stuff - the print has become my beloved wardrobe staple.

Nothing quite compares to leopard print – not zebra, not tiger, not polka dots or even stripes. Sure, I love all those things too – but none of them persistently lure me back in like the leopard.

I’m such a leopard advocate that, over the years in addition to half of my wardrobe, I’ve accumulated leopard print sheets, leopard print cushions – even a leopard print steering wheel cover (it started as irony, it ended in true love). And yet, of all the questionable purchases I’ve made over the years, I’ve never regretted a single leopard one.

Here, I chart the history of my favourite print. 

Why the obsession?

One of the endlessly fascinating facets of fashion is the cyclical motion of trends.

The sartorially savvy will save their old pieces, knowing that even if they’re not currently à la mode, they will doubtless come roaring back within the decade.

Some styles are particularly stubborn, though, and pay no heed to season or centigrade, enduring even when they’re not being thrust at us by designers.

The most persistent of these is leopard print. The exotic spotted animal motif is, somehow, always on-trend and able to look modern – no matter the era.

For some reason, despite knowing it’s nothing new – leopard always appears utterly contemporary, utterly cutting-edge.  It’s a print that transcends trends and time and sits firmly within the lexicon of cool.  

It feels trite to use the word ‘statement’ in reference to fashion ‘statement shoes,’ ‘statement handbag,’ ‘statement… eyebrows’ – everything today is such a statement that the word has become entirely throwaway, meaningless. And yet, if ever a statement were to be made via our dress, it can certainly be made in leopard print.

What makes it so special?

It’s rare for a print to represent so many conflicting things at once, but the coat of the big cat has many guises: leopard print embraces a melee of meanings that have covered everything from blue blood to blue collar, Hollywood Hills to Coronation Street, from the Flintstones to rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s a print that can in one context be sexy, erotic and in another be the guise of the crazy cat lady cliché. As a print that can be natural, or even in lurid hues or monochrome simplicity, designers have long adopted leopard to be punk (Vivienne Westwood), glam (Dolce and Gabanna), street (Jeremy Scott), graffiti (Stephen Sprouse) and even Scandi chic (Acne Studios).

Today, leopard print is a staple of sub-cultural style – a hard feat to accomplish with something so prevalent.

It’s a print that transfers the predatory fierceness of the animal to the wearer, stretching the borders of taboo. It’s not the fail-safe of the Breton stripe or the Betty Boop cute of the polka dot. Leopard is a print intended to stand out and it gives every ensemble an immediate injection of cool.

Emma McClendon, Assistant Curator at New York’s The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology sums it up perfectly:

“Leopard is one of the most intriguing prints in fashion. It is, of course, intrinsically linked to the pelts of the great cats, but it has been a cultural chameleon, taking on continually shifting meanings throughout history. At its extremes it has been both the ultimate symbol of glamour, wealth, and power, but also a stand in for the downcast, sexually free woman.”

A spotted history

Of course, you can’t mention leopard print without addressing its problematic past.

Skinned from the backs of unsuspecting felines for the principal function of providing warmth in cave times it was, many centuries later, adopted as a symbol of wealth and status by legions of kings who would display it proudly atop their shoulders to reveal their exotic kills in far-reaching locations that only lashings of money could afford to reach.

For much of its early life as a fashion staple this was leopard’s truth – it was the most desirable, most luxurious of pelts.   

Despite its current status as womenswear, the wearing of leopard initiated as masculine garb – a symbol of virility: I am man, I kill beast. The pattern did make a rare appearance in womenswear pre-20th Century, though. Curator  McClendon, recalls a piece from the museum’s dress collection from the 18th Century “with tiny little patches of leopard print on it, woven into a floral textile.” 

1920s and 30s: Leopards of the rich and famous

In the early twentieth century, the status of the leopard altered somewhat, as spots made it onto the shoulders of rich and famous women such as Joan Crawford and the ebullient flappers of the decadent jazz age.

Some even took the trend to the extreme, purchasing live jaguars, cheetahs and leopards as the ultimate accessory – and were photographed walking them around town on leashes in the pages of high fashion magazines.

By the post-war era, thanks in part to Christian Dior’s New Look styles it continued to make a show in the upper echelons of Western fashion.

1940s: The pin-up

The 1940s saw pin-ups adopt the spot, wearing leopard corsets and lingerie in a way that adopted the print’s exoticism and transformed it into the erotic. Leopard print became a sexy style as a result of its feline origins.

1950s: Fur hierarchies

The 1950s, though, marked a pivotal moment in leopard print. It was during this decade that fur coats became the ultimate status symbol of the affluent. Rich husbands purchased them for their wives and in the hierarchy of fur – from sable to fox to rabbit - the big cats pipped all others to first place, representing the most expensive and powerful piece of clothing.

1960s: The leopard turning point

But it was the 1960s which would really see the trend excel, moving it into the mainstream thanks to the dedication to the print by First Lady Jackie Kennedy.

Sadly, Kennedy’s pelts were real, and many have attributed the popularity of her style to the killings of hundreds of leopards.

Costume in films of the 1960s also helped maintain the print’s popularity, with Audrey Hepburn sporting a pillar box hat in 1963’s Charade and the infamous Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate – whose leopard print coat and matching leopard print underwear helped align the pattern with the image of the sexually empowered woman.

Despite much of these being real fur, the positive result was that the resultant killing of leopards and jaguars added fuel to the fire of the fledgling animal rights movement, encouraging people to really consider the worth of their clothes. Additionally, the popularity of faux fur and imitation animal prints can largely be attributed to the leopard trend.

If any trend proves how chic, popular and wearable faux fur and animal prints could be – without the need for the killing of animals – it is leopard print. Soon enough, the styles were translated onto other fabrics proving that – in a rare case for fashion – the imitation was preferable to the real deal.  By 1968, Rudi Gernreich dedicated an entire collection to faux animal print.

1970s: Subcultural leopard print

With the rise of glam rock of the 1970s, leopard print was adopted by both men and women in the form of spandex body suits in gender-bending celebration. Globalisation also led to a heightened interest in other cultures which no doubt accelerated the style.

By mid-decade, leopard had a new label: subversive. The punks from Sid Vicious to Debbie Harry injected the previously luxurious style with a heady dose of rebellion, teaming it with safety pins and tears, or wearing it as underwear, visible through torn clothes, giving it the shock factor.

1980s: Spots on the catwalks

By the 80s, leopard was firmly established as the language of the left-field, and was also branching out back to the catwalks, as Dianne Von Furstenberg chose it as the design for her iconic wrap dress.

1990s: Leopard of the people

The nineties saw the print democratise and be adopted in mass fashion, from sex worker, Alabama in Tony Scott’s True Romance, who wore it in lurid pinks and blues, and the reign of Coronation Street’s Bet Lynch whose combination of leopard print, peroxide hair and acrylic nails, lent leopard a trashy air. When the Spice Girls descended into pop culture in the mid-decade, Scary Spice embraced her role within the group, opting for leopard print crop tops, body suits or flares at every occasion.

Leopard has since towed the line between trashy and rock ‘n’ roll (thanks to Kate Moss, a long-time leopard lover) with occasional forays into high fashion.

In recent years, typically traditional brands including Coach, Burberry and Mulberry have included the print in their designs, and even pared-back Sacndi brand, Acne Studios, has had a pop at the print.

It’s an endlessly versatile print, that combines a continued ability to cause a stir (a most recent example of which saw the PM’s leopard-daubed feet splashed across tabloid front pages), with a rich history and an eccentricity that appeals to everyone’s wild side.

They say a leopard doesn't change its spots -  and for good reason- perhaps its constancy over centuries is the reason for this big cat's historic reign.

I, for one, shall be replenishing my stocks this season. 

Images: Rex Features, Getty, iStock