ANATOMY OF AN ICON

"Grrrrrrr"…. Can you hear the leopard roaring in your wardrobes this season? With its giant and colorful spots, what was once thought to be a passing trend from the start of the millennium keeps managing to reinvent itself, earning its position as a contemporary classic. An analysis of this series of reinventions. 

 

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Today for a chic or offbeat look, unfailingly fashionable in every case, leopard print has woven its way into the fabric of style. But this was not always the case... seen in turns as vulgar, punk, political, feminist and tribal, it dates back much further than the 2007 collections. There's a complex socio-historical tale here, making the leopard the king of the prints. In fact, it was this connotation of kingliness, an association with power and strength, that brought leopard print into fashion in the first place. In pomp and finery, every time. African tribal leaders, and in particular the Nuer tribes of South Sudan, would make its skin into a throne and wear it as a loincloth, dress or cap. Among the Nuer, the person called upon to resolve disputes is even called "the man in the leopard skin". Don't forget that the leopard is a powerful and clever animal; it runs at 80 km/h and is known for covering its tracks with its tail! So catching it is quite a feat, and wearing it is therefore a symbol of great strength. QED. Due to the effects of colonization, the leopard as an emblem of power is inevitably found during other periods and in other countries. The Dragons (clearly, roaring is essential) of the Régiment de la Garde Impériale (Imperial Guard Regiment), created in 1806 by Napoleon, for example, proudly wore a helmet encircled at the bottom with a leopard band. Real fur for the officers, but imitation print in cow or calf hair for NCOs and soldiers. 

 

So, what do you know! Real or fake, tanned or printed; yet another distinction in the leopard hierarchy. But of course, the print itself is nothing new. Even Napoleon (him again!) had a leopard print wool rug in his bivouac camp during the Russian campaign in 1812.  So it was not, as one might imagine, the appearance of the animal rights movement in the 60s that turned leopard into a print. Until then, wearing real leopard didn't shock anyone, it was simply a luxury. Even more interestingly, in the 50s, the leopard skin coat brought it back to its original function as a symbol of power. The only difference is, this time, strength had been replaced by money. The analogy between the coat, the garment for which leopard was most widely used, and tribal animal skin is obvious. And yet, from the 20s onwards, and especially in the 40s, designers were working with the print. First considered cheap and vulgar, it failed to find its audience. But like any good classic, all it needed was a few style icons to wear it and the spotted print became stylish. Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve, even Brigitte Bardot singing "a tiger skin dances at the top of my thigh, and I have only this leopard print coat on my skin..." in the song "Mon léopard et moi": they all wore it (real for the most part). And before long the fashion world followed. It was also made popular by famous cinematic roles (Marilyn in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and Carole Lombard in "Twentieth Century"), worn as detailing on a collar, hat or sleeve. But, whether a luxurious coat or understated velvet detail, in the 50s and 60s, leopard print was a must-have.

A must-have, yes, but more importantly it was considered to be respectable. But this was not always the case.  When it first arrived on the scene leopard print was disliked for being cheap ("Fur, yes, but not fake!"), and its reputation as a promiscuous animal made the print a style for the only the most ‘wild’ of women.  Despite being a symbol of wealth when it was real, at the same time leopard print became an emblem of frivolity, sexuality and vulgarity. At the time, the pin-ups, those femme fatales who had not yet benefited from the glamorous gloss of the vintage treatment, began to drape themselves with its spots. Adorning women in swimwear, in underwear, or simply nothing at all, leopard print began to be showcased on a completely different range of photographic advertisements. Ava Gardner, Betty Page, Elizabeth Taylor and actress Elaine Stewart posed languidly in leopard bikinis and one-pieces. It became the preserve of vamps. Just like the tribal leaders, they too wore this (fake) skin to symbolize their identity. Feline, like the leopard, simultaneously sweet, predatory, wild, unpredictable and independent. By appropriating and subverting this symbol of power, as masculine as it may be, these femme fatales transformed it into something ultra-feminine. They made it into another symbol, that of their sexual appeal.

So now we have our leopard (the innocent that he is, whose round spots are simply for camouflage in the forest) used as a symbol, both sexual and bourgeois, both animal and high society. For society's agitators, it was an opportunity not to be missed! In the 50s, “rockabilly”, a sub-genre of rock closely related to the pin-up scene, began to use it, and even today, coordinated with black, leopard print is a popular accessory to the retro-rock look. But it was the post-modernists of the 80s who turned the print into something truly provocative. What could be better than leopard print for this art movement with its ironic rejection of the establishment and modern society’s rigid ideas of "good taste"? Indeed, at the time, post-modernists and punks were purposely introducing "bad taste" into art and life, aiming to shock and provoke. They began to wear the clothing of prostitutes (so... leopard print!), among other alternative styles. In fashion, as well as in design and music, the provocative arts couldn't get enough of it, with the 80s rock scene at the forefront. Once again, it is the animality of the leopard that is celebrated. It is about showing the animal in all of us, or at least letting it speak. Out with the bourgeois; dry humor, bestiality, instincts and impulses are back! And yet, as with any movement, provocation eventually becomes the norm, and leopard print was re-re-democratized in the eighties. 

So it is with this history and these perceptions that the leopard made a come-back in the 00s, going on to reinvent itself yet again, becoming a core part of our wardrobes. They say a leopard never changes its spots- really? It seems that fashion has decided to prove the famous saying wrong!

 

 

 

credits:

"Masai warrior talking on a smart phone" by Mehmed Zelkovic

"Matching Fur" by Chaloner Woods

"Gene Tierney" by Silver Screen Collection

"photo of Sid Vicious" by Richard E. Aaron

"Kenzo campaign - 1983" by Hans Feurer