The History of Leopard Print

Debbie Harry, 1979

This post isn’t a ‘How-To’, or the ‘do’s and don’t’s’ of leopard print.This is the brief history of the subcultural significance of wearing leopard print – an animal skin that transcends rebellious groups and fashions. It’s just something you do or you don’t.

Sid Vicious in the rebel print

A primal pattern that, in nature, is designed to blend in with your environment, but in Western culture, it has spent an age as an aesthetic designed to make you stand out from the crowd. A style that is not for the fainthearted, Leopard skin is something that seemingly never left fashion like many so many fads. Arguably, it seems that although it regularly recycles back and forth on the runway, it is often not adopted by the mass consumer. Ubiquitous yet underground, this gives it room to never go out of date. But what happened in it’s modern, cultural history that marginalized it’s adoptive group so powerfully? Leopard is synonymous with the seedy, the sexual – the rebellious and raunchy. What differentiates the pattern from a polka dot or gingham – two prints that denote the exact opposite of Leopard – that swing in and out of mass wardrobes yearly? The fact that even in 2017 – an internet search of the the term brings up countless articles of it’s acceptability in the workplace; patronising listicles of how and how not to wear it; or one even called ‘Is Leopard Print Terrible or Terrific?’ from the Guardian.

Zulu Warriors

The hunt for its origins is a quest in natural and Paleolithic history, but it’s entrance into modern Western culture only stems back a century or so. The hide of a leopard is prevalent in many ancient tribes where the land was shared with the animal, such as the Zulu warriors who would ceremonially adorn themselves in the skin. There is an early instance of the print connoting masculinity and displays of virility – trophies of male prowess. It was in the horrific colonial pillaging of African and other indigenous lands by Westerners that first saw rich, powerful men take on the same ceremony – displaying the heads and skins of the animals on the walls of their homes.

Dior leopard print coats in the ’60s

At some point in the 1920’s, you can trace an interesting subversion of this ideal – with the rise of film and Hollywood, you start to see women reclaiming the macho print. It now came to represent glamour and luxury, playing with the dominance of the male significance and reclaiming it for themselves. This continued past World War Two – where the desire for opulence and extravagance was at the centre of fashion. Post-War designers adopted the print, with Christian Dior at the centre of the epoch. He interestingly noted that ‘if you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it’ – something that surely set the tone for future of the pattern in years to come.

The 1950’s and leopard print has cross-pollinated into various new meanings and realms. Its lifespan as a signifier of luxury for women took two steps back, and reverted to being the sign of not just a trophy – but the badge of a ‘Trophy-Wife’. The token wives of rich men were spotted for their pelts of leopards draped around their necks. You also start to see a rise in B-Movie films, a lot of which pervertedly infatuate over ‘exotic’ colonial lands and indigenous people- exploiting and sexualising them as escapism from the frigid sensibilities of the western world. Films like Voodoo Village or Tarzan to name just a few. The former being a non-fictional account from a obviously prejudiced white gaze – its poster is of the naked tribeswomen and the tagline: ‘The wild dance of the virgins! The beautiful rain goddesses! The unbelievable blood sacrifice!’ The cartoon The Flintstones was watched by families across the USA and Europe. Sheena Queen of the Jungle was a comic in wide circulation but heavy fetishised overtones.

Bettie Page as photographed by Bunny Yeager

The underground fetish and pin-up model Bettie Page is photographed countless times in various leopard print bikini’s, leotards and robes, most famously by Bunny Yeager, where she holds two stuffed leopards on either side in a tropically green backdrop. Bettie Page has since become a notorious cult icon, who still an influence on subcultures like rockabillies and psychobillies of today, and she certainly solidified the connection of lude and leopard. In the fifties, the emerging and rebellious teenager market bought into this ideal – sexual, powerful and most of all – wild. The teenagers became the first subculture – and this is where you see it become a tool of rebellion.

The mass consumption of leopard was soon lost with the rise of the anti-fur movement and women shunning the idea of being ‘trophies’. Labelled cheap and tacky- it was now associated with low brow, lower class women on TV’s across the world – in the US they had Peg Bundy, the UK had Pat Butcher.

Though underground, it remained a key fixture of any subcultural uniform. By the mainstream shunning the print, it made the rebellious and sexualised pattern become an even more desirable weapon for anarchic youth to utilise. The mainstream was officially shunned.

Underground faves Generation’s lead singer dons a daring leopard print two-piece