The leopard print fashion trend is nothing new. It has swirled around fashion crowds since the 1920’s, but incarnations of the print have changed with every generation who wears it. Like so many elements of fashion, the leopard print trend has been recycled throughout the decades so maintaining its intrigue depends on every trend-setting group’s ability to reinterpret the ideals of those donning leopard print before them.
Iconic leopard print looks, like Gloria Swanson’s poolside ensemble in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Jackie Kennedy’s famous coat, and half of Joan Collins’ outfits on 80s soap opera Dynasty, stand out in our cultural memory because of what the print consistently represents in womenswear: agility, courage and determination. To take the animal metaphor even further: we’re not necessarily predators in leopard, but we’re definitely on the prowl.
A brief history
If the print itself hasn’t changed since it first became fashionable, how has it come to symbolize such a variety of things in the context of fashion? In the 1920’s, real leopard furs were the prized possessions of flappers, a generation of women who flouted the social norms. Thanks to the exploration of Africa and the Far East, exotic animal skins were highly coveted among women, who saw themselves as brash and even, proudly, somewhat uncouth. Later, in 1954, Christian Dior warned women against leopard print in his Little Dictionary of Fashion, writing: “If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.”
During this time, those designers who liked to embrace the risqué used leopard print lavishly. Both Halston and Diane von Furstenberg dresses of the disco-era wrapped the beautiful people of New York in leopard print, fashion’s wildest trend. This was the set to truly make leopard their own, followed by 90s and 2000s fashion icons like Madonna and Kate Moss.
From avant-garde to mass fashion to racy styling, the connotations of leopard print are clear enough. As with any element of fashion, it’s about two things: who’s wearing it and who made it. So how are designers interpreting the leopard print fashion trend today?
A recurring theme
A number of Italian labels have incorporated leopard into their brand’s DNA, but the most playful stylization undoubtedly comes from Moschino. Boutique Moschino dresses are rife with florals and other prints, and the line wouldn’t be complete without a handful of leopard options.
Sophie Theallet has also played with the leopard print trend, altering the real-life design into an oversized grey, black and white illustrated version of itself.
Before Saint Laurent’s Fall 2016 couture collection, which revived the high-glam 80s, leopard print had been a recurring theme throughout most of Hedi Slimane’s collections. It can still be found among the more classic Saint Laurent staples like shirt dresses, ankle boots and tailored silk ensembles. In fact, just about everything Slimane has created comes in a leopard version. Some of these designs include sandals, sheer leopard blouses, 70’s style scarf-neck halters, trench coats and leopard jackets in a red wash.
Button-downs for men in the Saint Laurent's shirts collection feature leopard print as well. These are made with slim lines and classic color combinations, as well as more masculine oversized prints and army tones.
By contrast, leopard looks from Givenchy tend to be based on the brand’s own version of a 70s zeitgeist. Sticking to understated colors, the label has printed everything with leopard, from shirt dresses to overcoats.
But the Italian label best known for embracing iconic leopard print looks has to be Dolce & Gabbana. It’s hard to even think of Vogue without envisioning the brand’s leopard-clad models lounging around matching printed sets. Aside from classic blazers and cardigans, accessories by Dolce & Gabbana are also an easy way to add a hint of leopard to any look.
For leopard print designs in flattering cuts, look no further than Equipment. If you’re looking to veer away from simple shirt and dress styles, browse the Kate Moss for Equipment collaboration, which features a slightly more modern silhouette, enlivened with print-mixing.
Despite its fairly recent origins, the leopard print fashion trend has a richer history than most. Considering the interest it consistently gets from some of the world’s best design talents, as well as the diversity of its street-style champions – both Nicki Minaj and Michelle Obama are fans – there are certainly plenty of chapters in leopard print yet to unfold.