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Belly of the Beast: The Leopard's Legacy

“This world without a leopard… I mean, who would want to be here?!” Diana Vreeland

Synonymous with powerful femininity, sensuality and exoticism, leopard print has captivated our minds and wardrobes for thousands of years. But now that the fierce feline has been labelled critically endangered in North Africa, the Middle East and Russia, it’s about time we appreciated how the animal and its signature spots have come to be engrained into our collective consciousness forever.

The prowl to prominence

Long before there was Iman or Kate Moss, there was Dionysius – the original lover of leopard. The ancient Greek god of wine, fertility and madness was often presented as being draped in spotted furs to symbolise the feminine aspect of his godhood. In his earliest depictions, the god resembled a mature, bearded man but this eventually evolved into a sensuous, clean shaven youth who was often described as ‘womanish’ and presented in a state of undress. The androgynous figure acquired his leopard skins around the same time, which historians attribute to their connotations of liberation and unrestrained pleasure. This set the cultural precedent of equating the pelt with an almost primal sensuality, which we continue to see today.

Wealthy and fashionable individuals across the ancient world wore the pelts of these majestic cats not just for their striking pattern but to flaunt the fact they could afford to pay people to risk their lives in the hopes of acquiring them. Although the fur did fall out of fashion during the Middle Ages, it reappeared in Western dress at the beginning of Europe’s colonial invasion of Africa, Asia and the New World during the 18th century. Portraits of the Comtesse de Blois depict the European obsession with exoticism through fur stoles and trimmings all done in the iconic pelt. Interestingly, the trend spanned across gender boundaries despite the feminine connotations of leopard fur. However, were talking about the Dandies of the Rococo period here, when aristocratic menswear was the most ornate and embellished it has ever been.

With the advent of the industrial revolution came massive technological leaps in the textile industry. It wasn’t long before leopard print could be mass-produced for the newly emerging middle classes; but it took on a whole new meaning when adopted by the stars of stage and screen like the original vamp, Theda Bara. These women gravitated towards the ‘savage beauty’ associated in the Western psyche with animal prints and used it to develop their personas of dark, scandalous seductresses. Here, leopard print’s ancient sexual connotations reappeared and would colour our impression of the fabric for years to come.

Haute claw-ture

The year 1947 is engrained into the mind of every lover of fashion history, and for good reason. In any thorough dissection of modern womenswear, Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection should always be a point of discussion. His romantic, hyper-feminine silhouettes enchanted the post-war woman with hopes of returning to an age of softness and delicacy – which is why his use of leopard print comes as such a surprise. The ensemble (innovatively named ‘Jungle’) featured a sheath day dress bursting with feline freckles and a matching stole, it looked like something Mae West would wear to meet her accountant. But this seemingly inconsequential decision reframed leopard print in the mind of the public and aimed it once again towards women of propriety and wealth.

What followed in the sixties is what I’ve christened a ‘leopardemic’. The print became a global craze after being spotted on the likes of Edie Sedgewick, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins; but we can track the trend all the way back to one woman – Jackie Kennedy. The First Lady caused a sartorial sensation and a minor political scandal in 1962 when she was spotted in a leopard skin, A-line coat that was double-breasted, knee-length and had three-quarter length sleeves, designed for her personally by Oleg Cassini. Unbeknownst to the pair, their seemingly mundane choice caused the slaughter of over 250,000 leopards by poachers across Asia and Africa. Cassini was consumed with guilt over this and vowed to use only faux fur in his later work, while the U.S Government implemented a prohibition on all leopard skin goods in order to extinguish the flames of the craze.

A feline frenzy

Following the counterculture revolution of the sixties, everything was different. To a certain extent, women didn’t have to worry as much about what they wore as fashion became more individualised and acceptable. Diane Von Furstenberg’s iconic wrap dress is the epitome of this sentiment. It was revolutionary in itself, to have a dress that could be worn just as easily to the office as to Studio 54. The garment became a symbol for women’s liberation and the newly enfranchised female workforce due to its slinky, figure-hugging design coupled with its unrivalled practicality. Moreover, the dress featured loud, brazen prints – one of which just had to be leopard.

Von Furstenberg herself was a famous proponent of the print in her own wardrobe, a choice that cemented her image in the public eye as a success story of feminine independence and power. Since then, leopard has been repurposed and reworked by everyone from McQueen to Gautier, but perhaps most successfully by the late, great Azzedine Alaia. The Tunisian couturier was famous for his clinging dresses that enhanced the female form and his use of leopard to celebrate feminine sexuality at its purest.

Even now, we're seeing innovators recontextualise what this design means in the 21st century. Take Beyonce who, in her revolutionary visual album Black Is King, used leopard print to highlight its origin in African imagery and remove the colonial, exotified lens with which the pattern has been viewed with. Leopard print is unique in its association with multiple ideas of women; the sexualised, the exotic, the wealthy and the liberated are all woven into the cultural fabric of leopard print – and because of this its meaning and significance to women will always change and grow with them.


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