Leopard prints have taken part in more cultural – and countercultural – movements than Madonna. Diana Vreeland once declared "I’ve never met a leopard print I didn’t like!" – and the fashion industry mostly agrees. Historically used as a signifier of power and wealth, the leopard print trend fell out of high society and into rebelliousness and disrepute. Contemporary designers can’t get enough though, putting leopard prints on the catwalk each year without necessarily dipping into its risqué undercurrents; these days, it can be practically considered a neutral.
The original power symbol
Leopard print has been an important part of fashion’s history. The archives show traces of the print being worn as early as the 18th century when Europeans began colonising Africa and Asia. In the 20s and 30s, both wearing the print and owning the cat were seen as the epitome of power and luxury. Stars of the day including Josephine Baker and Jean Harlow regularly swathed themselves in fashionable leopard prints. At this point, the print was only reproduced for the highest echelons of society and was widely accepted as a symbol of wealth – for women only. In more recent times, the power-shouldered Balmain jackets from the AW14 shows insinuated a similar power hierarchy.
It took a few decades for the print to trickle down society’s ladder and even longer for men to embrace it. For his spring/summer 1947 collection, Christian Dior put leopard prints on the catwalk. Creating two dresses for day and night, he swapped the fur for a print version that led to the motif becoming more attainable. And the print gained momentum in the following decade. The fur coat was a status symbol for high-profile wives – Jackie Kennedy’s Oleg Cassini coat sparked worldwide envy in 1962. For AW16, Dior took inspiration from the print’s history – and its own archives – to produce a monochrome leopard print trench, which was snapped up by fashion editors everywhere.
A counterculture takeover
Despite Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn’s well-documented appreciation for leopard prints, the design soon became tarnished in the eyes of the fashion industry. Provocative stars like Eartha Kitt and Bettie Page took to wearing the print, and then the world was introduced to Mrs Robinson. In the 1967 film The Graduate, Anne Bancroft sashayed across the screen in leopard print coats, but then – damningly – leopard print underwear. From that moment on, the risqué nature of the print became legend.
For decades following, the trend was heralded by more rebellious souls. Debbie Harry wore the motif head-to-toe on the cover of Blondie’s 1978 single, Denis. Stars of the Seattle grunge scene wore leopard print coats over thrift-shop slips for the duration of the 90s. And, of course, men got involved. The feminine associations of the print played into the androgynous aesthetic of stars like David Bowie and Marc Bolan. More recently, designers have used this period as their guide. Hedi Slimane’s SS14 menswear show featured a number of slim-cut Saint Laurent jackets in the print, while his womenswear collection for AW16 celebrated an 80s-inspired take on leopard prints.
Leopard prints have come full circle. In contemporary lookbooks and current best-dressed lists, the print once again represents power and luxury. For women it's a celebration of femininity and strength, while for menswear it opens up a whole new world of vivid prints and patterns. It started slowly, with Valentino trainers and a cashmere scarf by Christopher Kane, but menswear designers finally warmed to putting the print on the catwalk. For AW14, Roberto Cavalli sent his models out in scarves, shirts and trousers adorned with the motif. For the AW16 shows, slim-fitting Etro jackets were resplendent in their leopard spots, while the Saint Laurent versions were worn with high-shine shirts and wide-brimmed hats.
Roberto Cavalli has never been one to shy away from leopard prints, but his Pre-Fall 14 womenswear collection celebrated it in all its glory. The lookbook contained the print in (almost) more guises than we could imagine, but the Roberto Cavalli dresses were arguably the best. AW16 saw a fashion-wide resurgence in fashionable leopard prints. At Dries Van Noten, the models walked the catwalk with an "air of aristocratic hauteur" (according to Vogue), and in their leopard-spotted trousers, capes and jackets they called to mind Baker and Harlow once more. Dolce & Gabbana skirts had a similar aesthetic with their feminine silhouettes and accompanying black frame bags.
While the leopard print trend may ebb and flow, the importance of the motif is clear. Throughout fashion’s history, leopard print has stood for many things: luxury and wealth, risqué rebellion and even a rejection of gender norms. Its power is impressive, considering its neutral colours and simple design – yet the smallest accessory in the print can entirely transform an outfit. We haven’t met a leopard print we haven’t loved either, Diana.