Fierce and feminine, a little leopard print goes a long way, says Phoebe Watt.
Kath Day-Knight, Cheryl West, the mum in Matilda, Mel B during the Spice Girls’ prime… You wouldn’t expect a fashion week front-rower to take style inspo from this cast of characters. Nevertheless, one print — beloved by all four — that’s dominated this year’s street style galleries would suggest that our favourite bloggers and editors have been binging a little too hard on Kath & Kim and Outrageous Fortune repeats.
Yes, leopard is everywhere. And not just in the muted shades approved by the power-dressing former president and creative director of J Crew, Jenna Lyons, whose opinion that “leopard is a neutral” effectively gave a generation of corporate women permission to prowl around the office.
The new wave of leopard is loud. It roared onto the runway (or should that be catwalk?) at Tom Ford at the beginning of 2018. In shades of neon yellow, lime green, ultraviolet and, as one reviewer wrote, “Trump-skin orange”, the palette was unapologetic, as was the message emblazoned on purses whose robust shapes and bedazzled exteriors could have inflicted considerable damage if used to smack a certain president about the mouth. Talk about the hunter becoming the hunted.
The link between leopard and people who don’t take other people’s shit can be traced back to ancient Egypt when Egyptian pharaohs wore actual animal pelts as they unleashed terror on the masses. Since then, from royals to rock stars, it’s been a universal symbol of power and status.
How leopard print went mainstream
So when did mere mortals start to get amongst? Christian Dior was largely responsible for initiating it into mainstream fashion, his first collection in 1947 rebranding it from ghoulish and garish to gown-appropriate, (not to mention, a great accent for a cuff). The association with power was still there.
Dior’s sister Catherine — muse for the Miss Dior fragrance and its leopard-centric print advertising — was a member of the Polish intelligence unit during WWII and a concentration camp survivor. The power was feminised, however, and accessible. Perhaps too accessible.
Towards the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the new millennium, thanks to the costume designers at major Hollywood production studios and television networks, leopard became gradually less synonymous with female strength and status and more synonymous with sex workers, bogans and the most vulgar class of all, the nouveau riche (Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, I’m looking at you).
The likes of Anthony Vaccarello (Saint Laurent), Riccardo Tisci (Burberry), and Victoria Beckham have fortunately propelled us into a better place. From their recent collections, we’ve learned that a leopard print dress, skirt or long-line coat, well-cut from luxurious fabric and left to speak for itself, holds more taste points than a bustier paired with a denim mini and kitten-heeled jandals.
And outside the shows, fashion’s elite have further demonstrated the high/low strategy essential to pulling off this print. Keep your leopard bustier, they say, but add a tailored trouser and blazer combo, expensive shoes, gold statement jewellery and impeccable hair and makeup.
“Is leopard print still in style?… Is leopard print trashy?”
As one staff writer for now-defunct online fashion publication Racked put it: “Just because you are now allowed to wear leopard print to PTA meetings without someone shoving a breathalyser in your face at the door, it still takes finesse to wear well.”
Some might argue that it also takes questionable ethics. Today, any brand with half a brain is adopting an anti-fur stance. Many animal activists believe that even faux-fur perpetuates the idea that it’s acceptable to wear the skin of another sentient being for style. Is animal print any better? Could a nylon leopard print bikini be the fashion equivalent of fake meat — dividing consumers on the grounds of hypocrisy? On this point, we are willing to be led by vegan designer Stella McCartney, whose latest pre-fall collection featured leopard in spades. If it’s okay with her, then it’s okay with us.
“…it still takes finesse to wear well.”
And it is seemingly okay with us. In 2017, a study conducted by Unilever found that for 33% of consumers, purchasing decisions are guided by a brand’s ethics. Based on the print’s popularity (a spotted midi-dress by Alice Temperley is retailer John Lewis’ most sold item of the year to date), leopard and, in fact, all things animal-inspired are apparently getting a free pass. It’s not just the one big cat that’s capturing our attention, after all.
Yes, tiger stripes are set to be the next big thing, and if there’s a fashion enthusiast this trend evolution was made for, it’s Richmond Tigers super-fan, Kath Day-Knight.
This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly, Issue 4, 2018.