Susie Cave and Kate Moss for Equipment © WireImage
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

No leopards were harmed in the production of Riccardo Tisci’s AW16 collection for Givenchy, but a visitor from another era may have got that impression. The Italian designer explained that his particular take on the big-cat print (which also featured python skins and Eye of Horus details) was inspired by a life-long obsession with ancient Egypt.

“It was the beginning of everything,” he said. “They invented pasta — and then the Italians developed it. They invented writing . . . And paper . . . ” It was also, he might have added, the beginning of leopard print as a fashion statement. Tutankhamun’s tomb contained real skins as well as a faux skin of woven linen with appliquéd stars within circles to represent spots.

Three millennia later, leopard is all over the high street and high fashion — the one material that might link Nicki Minaj with the Duchess of Cambridge, or Kate Moss with Theresa May. Like the ancient Egyptians, our new prime minister knows how to use leopard print to grab attention. She made her first appearance in her now-famous heels in 2002 and has stepped out in no fewer than five different versions since (from ballet flats to stilettos to — somewhat less effectively — wellies). The print has become her trademark. But why? To appear more feminine and inclusive? To express a more mischievous humour? Or to seem exotic, wild, dangerous?

“Wearing leopard print is a way of saying, ‘I’m a woman who is not afraid to be seen’ in a culture where, once you’re seen, you’re critiqued in a million different ways,” says Jo Weldon, a cultural historian who is writing a book on the history of the print. “A woman may not be saying, ‘I’m a predator,’ but she’s definitely saying, ‘I’m not prey.’ It also shows a desire to connect with nature, especially when we’re increasingly urban.”

The autumn catwalks were exactly that — a cat walk, offering a menagerie of prints. For Saint Laurent pre-fall, the outgoing Hedi Slimane took the print into a glam-rock setting: women wore red leopard-print folk dresses (£2,135) and swung studded cowhide bags (£1,110), while the men wore jacquard sweaters (£545) and carried big-cat backpacks (£575). Stella McCartney might be famously anti-fur but her cat-themed pre-collection featured alter-fur print bags (£1,850), coats (£1,335), and cheetah jacquard sweaters (£640).

At Akris, creative director Albert Kriemler was inspired by a “trip to east Africa, the red earth and the free-roaming wildlife”, to create prints in fiery, carmine colours. “I like the archaic idea that animal prints translate the beauty and power of the fauna into our lives,” he says. Closer to home, Kate Moss made leopard the signature pattern of her collection of shirts and pyjamas for the French luxury brand Equipment. When asked if she could only wear one print for the rest of her life, she replied: “Might be the leopard. But I’m sure that comes as no surprise.”

There’s an irony to the use of the print as a fashion statement. As Jack Ashby, a zoologist at University College London, says: “Leopards’ spots have evolved for camouflage, so they can creep up on their prey. The whole point is to avoid being seen. But with human fashion, the purpose is to be noticed.” Until recently, visitors were banned from wearing it at Chessington World of Adventures as the new giraffes and rhinos underwent a “programme of desensitisation” to the prints.

Hides have always commanded authority — early hunters believed wearing an animal’s skin imbued you with its power — and leopard features in the battle dress of Zulu warriors. The animal also became a symbol of wealth when 18th-century European imperialists dragged home skins of the leopards and zebras from Africa.

In the Roaring Twenties, women started to subvert the once macho symbol. The fur became a wearable trend among flappers refusing to blend in. Marian Nixon cemented its appeal when, in 1925, wearing her leopard-print coat, she paraded her pet leopard on a leash down Hollywood Boulevard. In the early 1900s, the Italian aristocrat and art patron Marchesa Luisa Casati was known for prowling around Venice with her cheetah wearing little other than a leopard-print coat and pearls. She provided the inspiration for Dries Van Noten’s leopard-print blazers (£660), brocade tops (£575) and furry booties (£515) for AW16.

Theresa May; Alexa Chung; Anna Wintour © Getty

In 1947, Christian Dior popularised leopard as a print rather than a fur, with a spring collection that included a mid-length day dress (“Jungle”) and a silk chiffon evening gown (“Afrique”). In his Little Dictionary of Fashion, he advised: “To wear leopard you must have a kind of femininity which is a little bit sophisticated. If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.”

But it was in the 1960s that leopard roared the loudest, with the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor swaddling themselves up in thousands of dollars’ worth of coats and accessories. Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1962 appearance in an Oleg Cassini-designed coat made from real pelts caused demand to soar, and reportedly inspired the slaughter of 250,000 leopards. The scandal was enough to turn Cassini into an early animal-rights activist.

In Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967), Anne Bancroft’s predatory seductress, Mrs Robinson, is at her most scheming and sexy when wrapped in leopard. But, by then, it had already become the symbol of the trophy wife — decadent, cruel, out-of-touch — and it fell out of fashion favour until it was taken up by punks and glam rockers — Debbie Harry, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Wendy O’Williams — who wore it on jumpsuits, glittery leggings and bandannas. In the 1980s and 1990s, it became synonymous with anti-conformists and subcultures, while the likes of Christian Lacroix and later Dolce & Gabbana continued to push the print as a symbol of decadent excess.

The kind of woman who wears it now is one who can take care of herself, who is not afraid to be seen or heard: think Carine Roitfeld, Beyoncé, Anna Wintour. While florals are sweet and accessible, the golden fur with its black rosettes gives the impression that its wearer is more in control, more polished, more comfortable with power. Leopard print is worn by women who embody Benjamin Disraeli’s maxim (seized on by Kate Moss) to: “Never complain and never explain”. Women, perhaps, who will not be tamed.

Today, wearers fall into two distinct camps. The first are the tread-carefullies, who keep their predators on a leash, using the spots as a sartorial accent (see Victoria Beckham’s classic shaped tote (£1,650), Dolce & Gabbana’s tiny box bags (£1,550) and Isabel Marant’s punky buckle boots (£520)). The second are the never-too-muches — those who either view leopard print as a neutral colour, or who want to channel the kitsch appeal of soap opera heroines Bet Lynch and Pat Butcher by wearing up to six or seven versions of the print simultaneously (see Roberto Cavalli or most branches of New Look).

As for Theresa May, she calls to mind a more ancient association. For the Egyptians, leopards connoted regeneration and rebirth in the afterlife — the dead were often swathed in leopard hides by leopard-clad priests. Perhaps the kitten heels she wore on the day she was sworn in also signalled a new dawn. Or at least a new paw-trait of power.

Shopping: predatory prints

Topshop Unique

Ponyskin boots, £195, topshop.com

Stella McCartney

Jacquard sweater, £640, matchesfashion.com

Victoria Beckham

Calf-hair tote, £1,650, net-a-porter.com

Dries Van Noten

Cotton blazer, £660, brownsfashion.com

Saint Laurent

Silk dress, £2,290, farfetch.com

Rochas

Embroidered skirt, £475, brownsfashion.com

Photographs: WireImage; Getty Images

Letter in response to this story

Bolan, not Bowie, was the ’70s big cat / From Amanda Nicholls

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.