The Rise and Fall (and rise again) of Leopard

Leopard print has probably had more rises and falls than any other trend in print.  It’s been considered high fashion all the way down to trashy and back again.  At times a symbol of wealth and power, others a symbol of rebellion and even smut.

In 1910, Elsie de Wolfe, stage actress turned designer, was ready to ditch the “gloom” of the current Victorian trend.  Thank goodness she did!  She became a decorator to the truly rich and famous and began to pepper their spaces with leopard print.  Her rolodex included the Vanderbilts, Morgans, various royalty, actors and actresses.  She blazed an interior design trail that winds all the way to present day.  Leopard, as you will find,  is one of them…and can I get an AMEN for that? 

Elsie de Wolfe

Elsie de Wolfe

But it wasn’t just interior design where this powerful print was being utilized.  A 1914 Vogue cover featured a leopard trimmed coat and muff as its ‘winter fashions’ feature…the trend stuck around for many more winters, too.   In the 30’s, designers like Lanvin started taking luxury fabrics and adding hints of leopard. 

Model wears a long and lean coat from the '30s with leopard fur accents. Photo courtesy of Harper’s Bazaar.

Model wears a long and lean coat from the '30s with leopard fur accents. Photo courtesy of Harper’s Bazaar.

Over time and much like a cat (get ready for a 9 lives reference), leopard print took on a different life.  It was shifting from glamour to seductive and the garments used were changing, too.  Think pinup in a leopard swimsuit.   

Leopard Swimsuit Black:White.jpg

Can we pause for a quick sec, though, to look at the pattern of the fur on this gorgeous animal?  First of all, they don’t have spots.  They have rosettes (it just keeps getting better, right?).  These rosettes are like mother nature’s couture fabric made to perfectly compliment the animal’s surroundings so that they may pounce when ready.  Not unlike Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate.

Anne Bancroft as the huntress, Mrs. Robinson, in The Graduate.

Anne Bancroft as the huntress, Mrs. Robinson, in The Graduate.

Ok yeah, a little different, but you’re picking up what I’m putting down.   

I digress.

In 1962 Jackie Kennedy stunned when she showed up at an official engagement in a leopard coat made by Oleg Cassini and with real leopard pelts. Her strong influence on fashion held as strong as ever as more and more leopard coats were being worn and the leopard trend soared (or sprinted, rather) to the high-end, classy end of the spectrum again. Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Barbara Streisand all glammed in the print.  And while she’s probably more in the seduction and power categories, it would be remiss to not mention that Catwoman herself wore her feline counterpart. 

Jackie Kennedy wearing Oleg Cassini coat, 1962

Jackie Kennedy wearing Oleg Cassini coat, 1962

Leopard and other animal prints began to become very mainstream in not only fashion, but interior design. In the 60s and 70s, interior design used prints like leopard as a focal point. The color palettes and furniture silhouettes changed over the decades, but not the use of leopard in interior design. Part of this can be attributed to faux fur hitting the scene making animal print very accessible. This was partially in response to animal activists making the use of real fur taboo. That’s fair because, especially after the fashion blessing from Jackie, our sweet leopard friend’s friends were slowly ‘leaving the party’ and becoming endangered. Not so good for the leopard.

Biba store, 1960s

Biba store, 1960s

Kenneth Jay Lane. Epitome of New York Interior design of the 1980's

Kenneth Jay Lane. Epitome of New York Interior design of the 1980's

While still having its couture moments, this new access to faux fur started to shift the fashion feel of leopard from one of class and glamour to, well, trash. Like fun rock-n-roll-Peggy-Bundy trash, but trash none the less. You don’t believe that this powerful cat could lose its strength and prowess? Scroll with caution. See ya on the flip side.

Oof. That was hard. We’re all in this together…glad we’re past it.

There was some taste still left in the world. We again turn to the Kennedys! Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, I think we can all agree, was another incredible style icon and lady of grace that married into the power family. Walking the streets with her husband (pleeease can we call him John John?) and much like her MIL, she turned heads in a leopard coat. Thankfully, the leopard tide was turning and making tasteful appearances on runways and models again. It’s use in interior design was holding steady and its minute as a raunchy party pelt was coming to an end. Whew.

Caroline Besette Kennedy in leopard coat, 1997

Caroline Besette Kennedy in leopard coat, 1997

Kate Moss on her 30th birthday, 2004

Kate Moss on her 30th birthday, 2004

Just like the animal has evolved and adapted over time to strengthen the species, leopard’s fashion trend has as well. The trend is on the rise again (can I get another AMEN?) and I don’t see its departure any time soon. Anthropologie recently posted a ‘litter’ of goods just begging to be worn and Tom Ford (swoon) proved his talents yet again with leopard on his Fall 2018 Ready-to-Wear runway. So use it, and use it well! But resist this:

Leopard Hair theladylikeleopard.com.jpg

Ok, you have to appreciate the art in that, right?

What I’m saying is that leopard adds edge without defiance. It adds power without overpowering. It’s very organic when you allow it to be, much like a neutral. A very powerful, sexy neutral.

Tom Ford, Spring 2018

Tom Ford, Spring 2018

Christian Dior was quoted to say “If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it”  I’m with Dior.  Be bold.  Be powerful. Wear it. Design with it.  Stand out….unless you are in the brush, of course. Then you will blend in perfectly.

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