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A history of leopard print, a chic and controversial fashion trend

Suave and unapologetic, leopard print wasn't always the ubiquitous fashion print pattern it is today. Fleurostar takes a look back at the strongly evocative animal print's popularity, from the jungle to the catwalks.

Contrary to popular belief, leopard print being a fierce feminine symbol is a quite recent phenomenon. We may talk about leopard or cheetah pattern design, but this originally was, of course, animal fur. Associated to virility, exotic animal furs were for a long time an (alpha) male prerogative and domination status symbol.

Humans have worn animal skins since prehistoric times for keeping warm obviously, but also in order to acquire the symbolic power of these predators, at the top of the food chain. Wearing a wild animal's fur awards the hunter with the lion or leopard's masculine power to display, but also confers him the agility and perceived courage of the feline, dangerous predator. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a time of territorial conquests of empires and colonisation, travelling was made easier for the rich and powerful, and safaris were trending. Inspiring new countries to explore made exoticism the new craze. Wild animals represented the ultimate hunting trophy for the powerful, and be it as heads on the walls, as rugs on the floor or worn as clothing, wild animals and their fur became a must have.

Leopard print as a symbol of power and domination slowly appeared in the female wardrobe. From the 1920's, the Hollywood's femme fatale trope in film noir, a mysterious, independent and untameable seductress, was often shown clad in cheetah or leopard fur accessories.

In 1947, Christian Dior shows his very first Haute Couture collection in Paris, one that transformed fashion almost overnight. In that "New Look" collection was presented the famous Bar female suit, but also the "Jungle dress". Teaming for the first time an ultra feminine figure, narrow waist and wider skirt, with the leopard skin print, Christian Dior makes a powerful statement, inventing a new visual language with leopard as a print rather than a fur. Now the height of glamorous sophistication, leopard print had entered the female wardrobe where it would remain a long time. Original and costly, the now chic and brand new feline print became an instant classic.

The next decades saw animal pattern settle in fashion and pop culture, in varying degrees of sophistication. Not just for rich, elegant ladies anymore, its image, although never innocent, started to shift towards a more explicitly predatory, amazon-like sexuality. Pinups such as Jayne Mansfield or Bettie Page were photographed wearing leopard fur on bikinis and other revealing clothes, giving the print its scandalous allure. Tellingly, "Villain" characters, or promiscuous women (single, independent and seductive), in film were often seen wearing the spotty animal print. It's the adoption of a (pattern of) behaviour seen as masculine, for a woman, that is regarded as inappropriate and somewhat unacceptable. Leopard print marks the woman wearing it as a threat to men and society for her sexual freedom. Still, the animal skin pattern is backed by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Liz Taylor, and every great fashion designer. As many trends do, trickling down to the mainstream, with the help of faux fur and growing ready to wear, as well as, well, misogyny, gave it its tacky, bad taste reputation.

In the 1970's, in a new, sexually emancipated society, fashion gets androgynous. Leopard print got worn by men again. Glam rock musicians such as David Bowie and Marc Bolan made the then feminine animal pattern an important part of their rebellious visual persona. Leopard print becomes at that time associated with rock'n'roll subversive icons, the Punks further transforming it, wearing it in bright colours, freeing leopard print from its chic background.

Still somewhat risqué, leopard print is a central element of maximalist interior design style. Animal print textiles bring warmth and texture to any room, with a hint of old-fashioned glamour, lingering on the slightly kitschy. The problematic side of fur, as well as hunting trophies, using tiger heads as rugs and ivory tusks as decor, somehow resonates even on leopard print as a pattern and its use in interior decoration.

Ironically, leopard print, an animal's camouflage fur, draws significant attention to one's outfit. Linked to predatory femininity, it is not a print pattern for the innocent or the tomboys. Almost a cliche in fashion editorials and catwalks, panther print today, as well as zebra patterns, tiger print designs or even python prints reappear in different forms every season, with new colours, shapes and sizes, thus conjuring different cultural icons and concepts, be it a Punk, glamorous, or a more wild femininity, always empowering.

Despite its neutral colour scheme, leopard print is a loud, daring and powerful statement. This is why it's often best worn on smaller pieces of clothing rather than a head-to-toe panther print outfit for everyday, risking you a fashion faux-pas (a fashionista's biggest fear and women's magazine obsession). Contained on a classic winter coat, a bag, pair of shoes or even a skirt, leopard print warms up any outfit, suits any skin colour in its classic camel and black version, and mixes perfectly with denim or black leather.

Whether you love it or hate it, leopard print isn't going anywhere out of fashion and is a strong textile design classic. Oscillating between luxury and mainstream, rebellious and sophisticated, animal print patterns are alluring and intriguing. Still as powerfully suggestive as ever, the significance of leopard print has even increased with each era's top designers and icons renewing, modernising, enriching it.



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