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Leopard Print in Fashion: A Spotted Cultural History

Leopard Print Design

Words by Jess Ralph

Fashion is filled with prints with paradoxical connotations. Tartan evokes both Scottish heritage and London punk, nautical stripes the nonchalant chic of Chanel and the campy sailor boys of 90s Gaultier, polka dots perfect post war suburban housewives and the new romantic goth pop stylings of Strawberry Switchblade. Yet, out of all fashion’s perennial (and contradictory) patterned recycling’s, its leopard print that remains the most divisive. Simultaneously screaming ‘look at me’ yet also considered a ‘neutral,’ the spotted prints reputation has swung from sophisticated and well-heeled to tacky and trashy many times in the last century. And its leopard prints’ complicated symbolism that has made it a subversive favourite amongst cultures provocateurs.

Seshat and Dionysus

Seshat and Dionysus early adopters

The iconography of leopard print in fashion stretches back millennia- Seshat, the ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom was often depicted wearing the animal hide, as were gods from classical antiquity such as Dionysus, the god of wine and hedonism, and Cybele, an Anatolian cult goddess of fertility. The mythologised combination of luxury, femininity and decadence stayed with the print right up to the early 20th century, when the rise of mass produced clothing coincided with the popularity of ancient Egyptian inspired, stylized animal print art deco motifs; leopard print was the pattern of choice for the sophisticated and culturally astute modern women, but was also accessible to the fashion conscious – and silver screen infatuated-  middle classes. Through the roaring twenties and dirty thirties, vampish starlets such as Josephine Baker, Theda Bara and Eartha Kitt all donned the spots; the animal print alluding to a self-assured animal magnetism that chimed with the loosening of sexual morals in the Jazz Age. Christian Dior was the first designer to put leopard print (not fur) on the catwalks in 1947, proclaiming of the print “If you’re fair and sweet, don’t wear it!”. The trend continued into the 40s with pin-up icon Bettie Page, and in the 50s movie star bombshells Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe, cementing the print’s reputation as glamorous, confident, and with more than a hint of sexual provocation.

Bettie Page

Eartha Kitt and Bettie Page in the Fifites

It was within the youthquake and sexual revolution of the swingin’ sixties that leopard print started to earn some countercultural edge. The rails of Carnaby Street boutiques such as Barbara Hulanicki and Biba where awash with the recognizable ochre and black pattern, and arthouse sex kitten Brigette Bardot was often spotted in a leopard print coat. On Bob Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, the track “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” is said to allude to the fashionable millinery choices of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. Conversely, it was in this decade that the erotic connotations started to be tarnished with suggestions of tackiness and trash; sexual playfulness turned to tragicomedy sexual desperation with cougar-ish characters such as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate (1967) wearing the print. Added, with the hippy movement bringing attention to animal rights issues and the appalling savagery of the fur industry, the wearing of animal prints and skins (real or not) became associated with being old, out of touch and morally dubious.

Here comes Iggy, Here comes Marc

As the seventies rolled around, Iggy Pop and glam rockers Marc Bolan and David Bowie utilised fashion, makeup, and flamboyance to challenge ideas surrounding gender, sex, and taboo. The feminine and sexually deviant flavourings of leopard print made it an obvious choice; the lines “Hot tramp, I love you so!” on Bowie’s ‘74 hit “Rebel Rebel ” feels incessantly leopard print hued. In the same vein, punk fashions utilised shock and the challenging of bourgeois ideas of taste; the androgenised punk uniform borrowed heavily from transgressive takes on the clothes usually associated with sex workers – fishnets, PVC, and of course, leopard print. Honourable mentions go to Poison Ivy of The Cramps in her head-to-toe leopard print ensembles (often with a decor to match!), Debbie Harry of Blondie contorting in a leopard print catsuit, and Sid Vicious getting snapped in a leopard print vest. In the early films of (Pope of Trash) John Waters such as Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974),  drag queen Divine’s exaggerated ethnographic portrayals of a sleazy, outrageous, sex hungry “filthiest person alive” , over done up and wearing leopard print, use camp performativity to play with the prints nuanced connotations of not only gender and sexuality, but also “acceptability”, age and class.

Poison Ivy

Posion Ivy delivers big cat Psycho

In the 80s, any aesthetic conservatism on the idea of “taste” was replaced with an unabashed revelry in excess and “look at me!” conspicuous consumption. Leopard print once again became associated with luxury and feminine power, glamazon bitches with a big cat appetite for sex, money, and power, such as Joan Collins’ character Alexis Colby in quintessential 80s soap opera Dynasty. The 90s saw designers such as Gianni Versace hark back to leopard print’s early 20th century incarnations with looks that blended the spots with the brands signature stylized Greco-Roman motifs, decadent and kitsch, trashy with a self-aware playful wink. Maximalist, fierce and irreverent, this high-octane version of the spots made its way into rave clubwear and hip-hop culture, and was seen in the wardrobes of Lil Kim, Scary Spice and Naomi Campbell. The punkier, seedier mode of leopard print also had a revival; Kurt Cobain in a crumpled leopard print t-shirt, Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World visiting a sex shop in a leopard print miniskirt, Shirley Manson of Britpop band Garbage. This sleazy version of leopard print made its mark on the early 2000s Camden indie scene, with Amy Winehouse’s dishevelled rockabilly stylings often incorporating leopard print, and Kate Moss’s uniform of the era – skinny jeans, biker boots, leopard print coat- be the subject of many a street style blog.

Enid Coleslaw

Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World

Now, with fashions fervent trend cycling and a culture generally less judgemental of less than conservative looks, the cultural reading of leopard print – whether that be sexy, trashy, glamorous, punky, or neutral- depends on the version the wearer wishes to present. Just remember the immortal advice of Mr Dior, “If you’re fair and sweet, don’t wear it!”


Obviously, for Underground, the allure of animal print is strong. The ever strong presence of leopard spots and tiger stripes that permeates through rock’n’roll, rockabilly, psychobilly and punk translates through to the panels and uppers of the Apollo, Wulfrun and Brafly Creepers.

Leopard Print
Leopard Print Shoes
Leopard Print Footwear

Brought to you by Underground- the brand of the Original Allgender Creeper and other British Subculture styles.

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