From cavemen to catwalk: The ever-changing spots of leopard print fashion



Once seen as tacky and unethical, leopard print is having a vegan renaissance. These days, most people would be disgusted by the thought of using actual animal skin for fashion, so why are recreations of them so popular? From high street to high fashion, we can’t get enough of this wild trend. Here’s how it has evolved, from our prehistoric ancestors to 2021’s must-have print.


A brief history of leopard print


These days, leopard print fashion is a million miles away from the historical hunting of animals for their fur. However, in ancient times, fur signified survival. Used as protection from harsh conditions, cavemen's animal fur coverings are perhaps the earliest blueprint for our love of animal inspired fashion. The material may be scorned at now, but in the early 20th century, fur meant money. Animal skin coats were a must for women in upper class society to show off their fortune. As only the rich could afford the price tag, fur coats signified power, class and wealth. Leopard skins were bought by people with high status, such as royalty to display in their houses, as the exotic animal represented power.


The golden age of Hollywood… and the birth of faux leopard


Christian Dior is said to be responsible for the introduction of leopard spots as a print when he included it in his debut "New Look" collection. This elevated the print to a chic and elegant status. Later, it became synonymous with Hollywood’s golden age glamour and the pin up look. It was seen as both sexy and powerful. As women began to express themselves more in the fashion department, leopard print’s popularity rose. Everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Eartha Kitt was seen sporting this fierce pattern. With the mass produced fashion industry growing, the everyday woman was able to recreate the fashion of her favourite stars. This meant leopard print hit the mainstream.


1970s onwards: rebel girls and edgy glam.


As the 70s and 80s saw an increase in PETA protests against fur. It was less about the real thing, and more about recreating the look without harming animals. The variability of the print was evidenced by its usage by punks and rock star royalty like Debbie Harry. It came to represent rebellion and boldness.

“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.” Jo Weldon, author of 'The History of Leopard Print'

The 1990s saw a swarth of rebellious women: from rock chicks like Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna, to Kate Moss, the “Queen of Cool” supermodel. Leopard print saw a shift from old school glamour to nineties grunge. The print became a marker of coolness, often worn in the form of big coats with even bigger boots. This once-underground ‘grunge’ style has left a legacy in mainstream fashion. Of course, you can’t mention leopard print in the 90s without thinking about Scary Spice. Mel B made the print her own, embodying fierceness and independence. Even now, her iconic all over leopard print outfit is recreated by many.


Soap operas, reality TV and… high fashion?


Once upon a time in the mid-2000s, animal print fell out of favour with many in the UK. With connotations of soap characters like Kat Slater and Pat Butcher, it was as labelled as tacky. More recently, the once unfavourable soap star leopard look was even given a kitsch makeover with people embracing the bold print by pairing it with even bolder accessories. This kooky leopard look was worn by the likes of Drag Race UK queen, Bimini, who was seen rocking a lot of (vegan) leopard print throughout the second series of Ru Paul’s drag race, including in an Eastenders parody challenge. Another small screen appearance for the print was Netflix’s wildly popular docu-series “Tiger King” which starred two crazy big cat owners, with even crazier fashion sense. Carol Baskin and her mortal enemy, Joe Exotic clashed as tiger owners, but shared a love for outrageous animal print outfits. With leopard print remaining as popular as ever, these two might have been 2020’s most unlikely fashion icons.


These varied appearances of leopard print show that its quirky, daring and sometimes comical connotations definitely haven’t put off high fashion designers. As seen by Balenciaga’s vegan leopard print coat in their SS20 collection and Miu Miu's velvet version of the classic leopard coat. Perhaps its ability to fit any context is why we love it so much.


A nostalgic print


The playful makeover of the sometimes tacky, sometimes classy style has also been seen in the “Y2K” fashion craze, mainly sported by Gen Z teenagers and social media influencers. Think leopard print crop tops with matching scrunchies... the legacy of sporty spice lives on! It’s possible that this youthful look to the past may be as a result of the turbulent past year. Perhaps the multi-faceted history of the trend is what fuels its popularity.

“Nostalgia is often associated with positive emotions, offering a comforting anchor during stressful times. This perhaps explains why, for many fashion enthusiasts today, going back to Y2K trends amid global uncertainty is their way of going forward”. Koh Ewe, Vice Magazine

The obsession with this style that has come to represent so many things is clearly going nowhere. Leopard print has the power to make anyone feel confident. It embodies a history of powerful, rule breaking women. Just make sure you keep it faux!