Worn by everyone from royalty to rock stars, leopard print has been both valued as luxurious and sophisticated and dismissed as kitschy and trashy. According to writer and entertainer Jo Weldon, all of those labels are to some extent correct.
Weldon—an author and burlesque performer currently working on a book and exhibit about the ever-popular, always-controversial print—notes that the pattern has gone from high-fashion to low-class and back again over the years.
But in the natural world, what we widely refer to as leopard print is designed to blend in rather than stand out; its blotches and patterns are meant to hide predators as they hunt in the flora and shadows of their natural environment. And it works amazingly well, so much so that similar patterns appear on several great cats, fish, frogs, insects, and even—a few paleontologists have postulated—on dinosaurs.
In Western culture, leopard print takes on an entirely different connotation, indicating social status or sexual availability. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, boasted of killing several leopards on his myriad hunting expeditions, and displayed them as prize trophies in his office, proof of his prowess as a hunter. This display of leopard as a symbol of wealth and power is part of our own society’s view of these animals. But in her own work, Weldon was surprised by “how deeply I had to research to find evidence of leopard print … in the fashion history of regions actually populated by leopards.”
She says that “leopard fur is a signifier of patriarchal power in some cultures where leopards are indigenous, the most familiar to people in the U.S. probably being a simplified perception of the way Zulus wear it in ceremonies.” Images of leopard-clad natives and “wild men,” such as Tarzan, are largely a fabrication of colonial imaginations that associated “primitive” cultures with the wearing of animals.
The 20th-century vogue for leopard print started in the
1920s with the rise of mass-produced fashions inspired by the glamour of movie stars like Joan Crawford; post-World War II, it continued thanks to “New Look” fashions by designers like Christian Dior, who cheekily warned women: “If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.”
From there, Weldon says, leopard print’s image evolved into the “Western high fashion [of] the 1950s and 1960s, [where] wearing a leopard [pelt] fur coat evoked a signifier of a trophy wife in a lot of the popular media I studied, while leopard print was evocative of a more undomesticated female.”
Ultimately, Weldon says, “the trophy-wife-in-a-leopard-coat trope crashed in the late 1960s, with Anne Bancroft's appearance as the frustrated and malevolent (but insanely stylish) trophy-wife-turned-predator in The Graduate, as well as the development of the anti-fur movement.”
What was once slinky and posh came to be considered low-class and flashy, becoming a staple in racy catalogs like Frederick’s of Hollywood. In the 1970s and '80s, the print transformed yet again, turning into a symbol of power as a wardrobe staple for women in rock. “Through my teens in the '70s and '80s, I became even more attached to [the print] when I was into punk rock and female transgression, admiring Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, and Wendy O. Williams,” Weldon told mental_floss.
Over the past century, leopard has fluctuated from a sign of taste and wealth to, well, its utter opposite, as fictional characters like Peg Bundy in the 1980s and '90s demonstrate; more recently, it’s reappeared on haute couture runways. Currently, wearing the print can be approached with so much caution that Forbes dedicated a column to the burning question “Can I Wear Leopard Print to the Office?” (Short answer: yes, but “you just need to tread carefully.”)
Regardless of the print’s recent evolution, Weldon contends that leopard print continues to be associated with sex appeal and femininity. She thinks that’s “because leopards are so hard to domesticate. And we seem to associate cats in general with sexuality.”
Weldon also notes that the great cats themselves serve as inspiration for some people who wear the print. “A lot of people have expressed a serious respect for the animal it represents, almost as if they are hoping to be worthy of representing as royalty.” She explains that many women continue to find leopard print attractive and daring because “the pattern designed to help these dangerous animals blend in was one that a woman used to stand out. She's not necessarily saying that she is a predator, but she sure isn't prey.”