Leopard Print is Timeless
The history of leopard print as a fashion statement & its ongoing charm
As a child in the '90s I loved watching MTV. I was mesmerized by the creativity: the music, the sets, the choreography, and of course the outfits. An outfit that particularly stood out to me is the leopard print ensemble worn by Shania Twain in the 1998 music video for 'That Don't Impress me Much'. I think it was the first time I ever saw Shania Twain, and I assumed she was a natural redhead. Looking back, leopard print is definitely something that I associated with the Spice Girls but Shania made leopard print look mysterious and glamorous.
Another early leopard print memory for me is when I was given some hand-me-downs from an older girl who lived nearby. This would also have been in the late 1990s. The bag of treasures included a pair of leopard print ankle boots with a heel. They seemed daring and grown-up and I was thrilled about them.
Christian Dior referred to the daring nature of leopard print in his 1954 manual, 'The Little Dictionary of Fashion', when he stated, “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.” (stylist.co.uk, 2018) There is indeed a strength to leopard print as, in my opinion, it can look incredibly striking.
In 2018, it was referred to as "the new neutral" due to a high prevalence of leopard print designs on runways. (stylist.co.uk, 2018) However, regardless of whether or not leopard print has become mainstream, I believe it is the beauty of the natural pattern and the way in which it is styled that gives it its potency. Leopard print is more than just a print, the wearing of the material symbolises the strength and beauty of the animal whose natural spots have made it famous. Also, it is worth noting that leopard print first became mainstream, far before the 2010s, in the 20th century with the development of mass produced fabrics. Regardless of mass production, with its continuing associations and stereotypes, the print still carries its spark. Poppy Corry-Wright (writer for Culture Whisper) accurately described the complexities of its reputation, "From royalty to punk-rockers, realms of kitsch to sophistication, trash to high fashion, there are many different faces of leopard print." (culturewhisper.com, 2018)
Depending upon styling and opinion, views of leopard print lean to the extremes of 'tacky' or elegant. Leopard print's past as a status symbol juxtaposes with societal views of female strength and sexuality (female qualities that have often been wrongly condemned throughout history). Perhaps due to its association with the commercial music scene, there is also a strong association between leopard print and fun/rebellion. Ultimately, the wearing of leopard print requires a certain level of confidence, and this only adds to its allure.
Leopard print may have a strong 1990s association, but it was viewed as a striking fashion statement millennia before.
Whilst now a no-go zone for many buyers for ethical reasons, from the 18th century to well into the 20th, real fur fashion items were seen as a luxury and associated with wealth and status. As early as the late 1800s, materials were made which mimicked the pattern of leopard fur (for both women and menswear). (darthkendraresearch.wordpress.com, 2015)
Leopard print's associations with status and wealth are mirrored in early Hollywood snapshots of stars wearing the material. Leopard print allowed the female stars of vintage Hollywood to deepen their reputation as exotic, successful and alluring women.
Purely posing in leopard print wasn't enough for many vintage starlets. A vintage Hollywood trend was to pose with an actual leopard while wearing the matching print. Stars who featured in such photoshoots include Josephine Baker, Joan Blondell, Acquanetta, Gene Tierney, Betty Page and Eartha Kitt.
For style inspiration, I've shared more images below of women who have worn leopard print with style over the decades:
Let me know what you think of leopard print in the comments: is it something you wear/would wear? and who do you think wears leopard print the best? Thank you for reading, Gina.
Article by Anita Bhagwandas, Stylist, 2018.
Article by Marianna Cerini. CNN. 2018.
Article by Poppy Cory-Wright. Culture Whisper. 2018.
Article by Darth Kendra. Darth Kendra Research. 2015. https://darthkendraresearch.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/leopard-print-in-the-late-18th-century/
Non-Linked Image Sources