Symbolism in fashion

Leopard Print

‘How to wear leopard in a sophisticated way?’, ‘Can you wear leopard print to the office?’, ‘Will leopard be back next season?’. For a print that owes its runway début to a respected couturier, leopard is regarded as infamous more often than timeless. The leopard motif’s swiftly altering connotation has rightfully raised many questions. Time to shine some light and unravel a history that is anything but spotless.

words by Charlotte De Loose

The untameable evolution of the leopard print 

Being one of the most produced – perhaps even overproduced – patterns next to camo print, leopard has been evoking sartorial controversy for over a decade. First to introduce leopard in couture, as a printable pattern instead of fur, was Christian Dior. During his ‘The New Look’ spring/summer presentation in 1947, he showed this legendary motif which he dubbed ‘Jungle’. With the help of Lyon-based silk manufacturer Bianchini-Férier, who created the fabric, he used the print to design three revolutionary silhouettes titled 'Africaine', 'Jungle' and 'Reynold'. Once the leopard print gained a thorough acquaintance with its new luxury fashion habitat, it set off a chain reaction of respected women making their appearance in silhouettes similar to the ones Dior had created. Famous actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis appeared on the silver screen in dresses and coats covered with feline-inspired spots, setting an empowering example for women at the time. Their boldness was striking enough to trigger one respected designer after the other to follow suit.

Throughout the fifties and sixties Balmain and Yves Saint Laurent, among others, generously adopted the print in their collections, applying it to numerous different pieces of clothing and even adorning footwear and handbags. For Italian houses such as Roberto Cavalli and Dolce&Gabbana, who have always been known to epitomise sensuality and sexiness, the leopard print was almost like a gift sent from above as it has a habit of conveying a distinct feminine confidence to whoever wears it. The pattern contributed to the success of these designers in the late twentieth century and still forms a signature in their collections to this day. Inevitably, high street brands also jumped on the bandwagon, and the creation of various leopard-printed fabrics skyrocketed and took mass-production-proportions. This all led to a certain uncontrollability - that reminds us of the wild creature we owe this graceful pattern to - which explains the ambiguous character the leopard print has today. 
Balenciaga AW17, Versace SS16, Saint-Laurent SS16, Roberto Cavalli SS16, Maison Margiela SS16, Junya Watanabe SS16, Gucci Resort 17, Fausto Puglisi SS16, Diane von Furstenberg SS16, Comme Des Garçons SS16, Bottega Veneta SS16. 

A historic symbol of wealth

So what does the leopard print symbolise, apart from the connotations it was given by the fashion industry? Throughout history, savage animal features have been part of humans' social environment, which is proven by paintings dating from the eighteenth century, depicting various patterns that imitated the skin of animals. In this era, objects such as animal-printed rugs and mounted savage animals were a symbol of status for kings and other wealthy individuals and exuded wealth and abundance. 

In a natural environment, the purpose of a wild beast's spotted coat is a form of camouflage that allows them to be inconspicuous while on the hunt for prey. Ironically, in a sartorial context, the purpose of animal print is quite the opposite, it's worn to stand out and even draw attention to the person dressed in it. In central and southern African regions, wearing leopard skins or a leopard-printed toque has always been the symbol of power and aristocracy. In her 'From Mobutu To Beyoncé' exhibition, photographer Émilie Régnier depicted women and men from various demographic backgrounds dressed in leopard. In these namesake series, she proves the print's cultural fluidity to be part of today's zeitgeist. 

From the epitome of luxury and wealth to empowering and sexy femininity, on to a slightly more vulgar and kitsch connotation, the leopard print has a tumultuous past and holds an equally intriguing future. Making it work in a contemporary setting requires a great deal of confidence and creativity. The way it's interpreted today is entirely in the hands of the wearer. 
Left: Zanello Domo and Philo Dlama, Durban, 2015. Right: Mobutu, Kinshasa, 2015. 
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