Leopard print, this season’s biggest trend, has gone from subversive to massively mainstream – and Stylist’s beauty director and leopard print lover Anita Bhagwandas isn’t sure how she feels about it
Newport market on a drizzly morning in the mid-Nineties – it’s hardly a picturesque vision. And my mother simply didn’t understand why she’d been dragged here. “Because I need leopard print bedding,” I snapped with the fury that only a teenager can muster. And I did need it. Mum had festooned our house in Laura Ashley florals – each room was a cacophony of garish flowers. “Leopard print looks cheap,” she said, begrudgingly parting with a tenner.
Once home, my new satin leopard print bedding did indeed look the kind of decor Peter Stringfellow or Bet Lynch might have favoured, and it was so slippery that I routinely slid out of bed onto the floor. And yet I adored it. For me, leopard print had become the ultimate signifier of dissent against my conservative Indian upbringing and my equally conservative schooling. It wasn’t just a rebellious teenage fad that reflected my musical tastes (namely my insurmountable obsession with the Manic Street Preachers – always decked out in leopard print coats and kohl).
So naturally, a faux leopard print jacket that I got in a charity shop was my ultimate buy. I’d wear it to dingy rock clubs with huge billowing jeans and studded belts, always with the robust aroma of CK Be and Marlboro Reds. There was something about leopard print that gave me permission to be me, and while nowadays I might be more inclined towards a leopard print Alexander Wang jacket or Alexander McQueen scarf, I still wear it almost daily in some form.
Right now, chic, cool leopard print isn’t hard to find. It’s risen so much in popularity that it’s no longer the reserve of grunge princesses, rock ’n’ roll elites and Dorien from Birds Of A Feather. Whereas once you’d have to rummage through charity shops and vintage emporiums to find anything half decent and leopardy, it’s now everywhere, from the catwalks at Balenciaga, Tom Ford and Saint Laurent through to Net-a-Porter, Zara and Asos (the latter sold 1.3 million animal print garments last year).
It’s telling too that this season’s must-have items are both leopard print: Realisation Par’s Naomi skirt – a slinky slip seen on fashion editors and bloggers alike – and a similar one from & Other Stories both continue to sell out. Although personally I’ve got my eye on the jaunty floor-length cape by Dolce & Gabbana should it ever saunter down from its £2,850 perch.
But leopard print has been ‘happening’ for seasons, led by the likes of Phoebe Philo at Celine in 2014 and Carolina Herrera through to the high street, but suddenly it has become an accepted neutral, just like camel or navy. It’s what led noted fashion editor Hilary Alexander to release Leopard: Fashion’s Most Powerful Print. Leopard’s arrival means half of the Stylist team are currently emblazoned in leopard spots.
Which, as an old-school, punk-inspired leopard print fan (Sid Vicious wore leopard print effortlessly) I do find hard to palate – it feels like a mainstream appropriation of something subversive that belongs to a subculture, like spikes or creeper shoes. But there has always been ‘good’ leopard print, worn by people deemed acceptable (like Kate Moss), or ‘bad’ leopard print, worn by the brassier types (Coronation Street’s Bet Lynch) – so it’s certainly had a somewhat tumultuous ascent to fame.
Jo Weldon, author of Fierce: The History Of Leopard Print, knows all about its illustrious history. “Leopard print has always been special,” she says. “A fake leopard print pelt was found in King Tut’s tomb, Henry VIII had three leopards in his menagerie (and forbade anyone from wearing leopard fur) and Greek god Dionysus has even been depicted in leopard print.”
Some psychologists believe that we’re genetically pre-conditioned to react viscerally to the print, which goes back to our cave man days when leopards and other animals represented danger.
But the skins were also a sign of power; our Neanderthal ancestors would proudly wear the pelts of their kill as a mark of prowess. You could say our modern day obsession is something of an evolution of this – a way of peacocking that is decidedly primal. And that’s a far less serious way of thinking about it, unlike the Ancient Egyptian kings and priests who wore leopard skin robes to signify the defeat of evil gods.
Around the 14th century, leopard fur was a style statement among the wealthy as travel became a norm for the upper echelons of society. Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of Charles VI of France, became a style icon spending huge sums of money on animal print decor in their palace, which was covered in trophy rugs and pelts. While the renaissance period ticked along until the 17th century in Europe, the explosion in popularity of animal print boomed, with the leopard pelt enduring as a signature of luxury. Europe’s burgeoning trade links meant that leopard became a recognisable symbol of wealth, often appearing in works depicting nobility such as those by the Italian painters Titian and Carpaccio.
The industrial revolution of the 1700s triggered a huge shift in fashion, however. Large-scale machines were invented and animal-inspired prints could be embroidered or printed onto fabrics. High-society Europeans would wear leopard print fabrics, but the love of authentic pelts still reigned supreme for the aristocracy. “In the 18th century, rich and noble Europeans would travel and bring back exotic pelts – it was a symbol of foreign lands, leisure time and wealth,” Weldon says.
As the Twenties approached, leopard print and fur was still sought after. “It was practical too – flappers wore big fur coats for warmth as cars were open back then and the fabrics their clothes were made from became lighter,” Weldon explains. By the mid-century, leopard spots were appearing on slinky eveningwear and fur coats moved past their function to become signifiers of wealth and privilege. “Women largely relied on their husband’s income, so if they had a fur it would have been a gift or an indicator of familial wealth and status,” Weldon says.
While mink, rabbit and other pelts were popular, leopard was one of the most expensive and rarest furs. “It was flashier and more unusual compared to other furs at the time. It was the sign of being a trophy wife [seen as a good thing then],” Weldon says. “Jackie O also wore it in 1962, fuelling such a mass craze that the leopard population even started to decline.”
Thankfully, the 1973 Endangered Species Act meant people were banned from hunting leopards for their fur.
As a fabric, leopard print was more readily available than ever before and to a wider range of people. On film, Anne Bancroft’s appearance as the frustrated housewife turned seductress in The Graduate (1967) spoke volumes. Mrs Robinson, complete with leopard fur coat and a cigarette, yearned to be set free from the trappings of her traditional life. The print stood for rebellion and wanting to fearlessly break from the norm; the tide was turning for women and Bancroft was the personification of that.
A few years earlier, Betty Friedan’s landmark text The Feminine Mystique had sparked a revolution and by the Seventies the first wave of feminism was in full swing. With rock stars and hippies decked out in it, leopard had shed its aristocratic origins and become universal – a sign that it had taken on a new meaning.
Over the past few decades leopard print has picked up more sexualised connotations, particularly in pop culture. Take Marilyn Monroe and her matching accessories in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Twenty-five years ago, Patricia Arquette wore leopard as call girl Alabama Whitman in True Romance (1993); the loud and rebellious Scary Spice wore a skin-tight catsuit; Kate Moss wore a tiny dress under a big leopard print coat for her 30th birthday; and Paula Yates presented The Big Breakfast from a resplendent leopard print bed. ‘Sexy’ brands like Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana have made it their signature, from faux fur jackets to leopard print accessories.
There’s no skirting around it, leopard print is sexy. “Big cats like leopards are warm-blooded and wild,” says Weldon. “Leopards are nocturnal too, and the night is our leisure time when we’re more likely to date and have sex, so it makes sense that we’d make the connection between leopard print and eroticism. Our pupils even dilate when we see it, and our adrenaline levels rise too because we perceive it as a threat – which is the identical response to arousal.”
Even fashion has had a say in this: in his 1954 manual, The Little Dictionary Of Fashion, Christian Dior famously said that “to wear leopard you must have a kind of femininity which is a little bit sophisticated. If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.”
With so many meanings over such a long time, leopard print has come to a turning point, says Weldon. “If something becomes more affordable and widely available some will say it’s tacky. The principle of promiscuity: if everyone has it, I don’t want it.”
I agree. I hate that leopard print has become the new neutral – I mean, what? I can’t help but feel that leopard print has lost its attitude. Instead of being on a cool punk girl in Camden, it’s now everywhere and I feel like my style has been a little invaded. Everyone on my teenage walls – from Courtney Love and Shirley Manson through to pin-ups Traci Lords and Bettie Page (I had a postcard of her wearing leopard print alongside an actual leopard, talk about epic) – were ballsy, gutsy, out-there women. Women who did not conform to the usual fashion standards or care a jot about neutrals.
So while it was supremely divisive – either very regal and dripping in wealth (à la Cavalli) or tacky and brash (long live Bet Lynch), it has now reached an equilibrium. But maybe that’s the big switch. The fact that leopard print is more popular than ever speaks volumes about our current collective mindset. Western female empowerment is booming; ‘feminist’ has become a designer slogan, we’re marching like our lives depend on it (and other women’s lives actually do depend on it) and everyone is becoming more accountable for their actions.
“When you put it on it changes the way you feel,” says Roberto Cavalli’s creative director, Paul Surridge. “It changes your stature. You don’t put animal print on to sit in the corner. There’s a subliminal message that when people put animal print on they’re in charge. It’s why it’s so important at this moment in time. I think it’s to do with women and designers reflecting on the power and place of women today.”
It’s like we’ve reclaimed leopard print, taking it away from any sexuality we don’t exclusively own ourselves and away from connotations of ‘tacky’ or ‘cheap’. But what’s most evident is that our love of leopard print is an enduring one, and one that shows no signs of abating. However you choose to wear it, just do me one courtesy: wear it with pride and wear it with gusto because we truly deserve it. And to all the wallflowers, sorry, but this one’s still not for you.
Images: Rex Features, Unsplash