Leopard Skin — Making Power and Rebellion an Adornment
There is a rich and daring history behind the leopard prints we see making a comeback today. Leopard print has made an impressive cameo in the most recent in-store Louis Vuitton launch, serving as focal element of the Pre-Fall 2021 Wild at Heart collection. This bold, powerful motif adds a rebellious, playful energy to the refined and understated embossed calf-skin leather taking the company by storm.
As mentioned earlier, the history of leopard print is as audacious as it is extensive. This print has been making a statement dating back to Roman Egypt, as early as 1 A.D, where leopard skin was a symbol of the opulence, power, and social esteem associated with priesthood. Earlier still, Dionysus, the Greek God of grape harvest, wine making, religious ecstasy, and son of Zeus, was known to bear leopard skin.
Dionysus was a God who centered liberation, pleasure, and indulgence in worldly pleasures and primitive urges. Dionysus had a meenad, or cult following of female devotees, he was celebrated as a provider as a fertility God, providing the crops and abundance the Greeks needed to thrive and indulge. He is associated with wine, fine arts, and inspiring the adoration of women.
In his depictions, he is shown riding a leopard, or adorning a leopard skin, if not commuting in a leopard-drawn chariot. Dionysus is a figure that represents the wild and compelling nature of the divine masculine being able to nurture and cultivate the power, cooperation, and even tame the spirit of the wild woman.
In modern years, leopard print has had a resurgence. One of the earlier waves leopard print made as a contemporary trend was in the 1930’s. Josephine Baker, cabaret dancer, burlesque performer, activist, and French Resistance agent, often performed alongside her pet cheetah, which I believe to be the inspiration and root of leopard print gaining popularity once again. Leopard print had also begun to make an appearance in print advertisements for designer Christian Dior in the 1930’s.
Leopard skin first met the runway in 1947. The House of Christian Dior brought fabulous cheetah skin and print designs to the runway and revolutionized animal print in the fashion industry.
In 1953, the popularity of leopard skin spikes once again, as Marilyn Monroe flaunts leopard skin motifs in her feature film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In 1962, Jackie Kennedy was spotted in leopard print during the span of the rumored affair between her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and Ms. Monroe, a fashion statement that I personally think spoke volumes.
By choosing leopard print, Jackie O reclaimed her femininity and sensuality, as well as asserting her power, class privilege, and social stature. Not only that, but the former First Lady also suggested, by wearing a print that her husband’s alleged mistress had once made iconic, that there was no need for her husband to look further than what was in front of him. The wild, untamed, powerful sexuality John Kennedy sought in Marilyn Monroe was right there at home, it was an energy waiting to be unleashed.
Transitioning into the 1960’s, who better to sport a skin meant to represent power, liberation, and a victorious spirit than Black women taking the spotlight. For Eartha Kitt, leopard print was not only representative of her ferocity and shocking sexuality, but a symbol of her substance. Another reason not to be underestimated, a statement that she could not be tamed or stifled.
In 1973, the selling and trading of cheetah skin was prohibited under the Endangered Species Act during Nixron’s presidency.
Moving forward, leopard and animal print was and still is used to express rebellion, adventure, confidence, and authenticity it has so timelessly represented.
In the 80’s, leopard print was a staple motif for rockstars, an emblem of their bold, savage spirits and fearlessness in self expression. Think Steven Tyler, Motley Crew, Marc Bolan, and Michael Monroe. During this time, leopard print was also used to challenge gender norms and contributed to the glamorous androgyny that defined the era.
In the 90’s, Naomi Campbell and Spice Girl Mel B, AKA Scary Spice reimagine leopard print while embracing the traditional values of audacity and freedom.
Today, leopard print is used to express the same values, Beyonce uses leopard print as an expression of power, opulence, and ferocity in the Mood 4 Eva visual. Contemporary femme fatale Rihanna has made several statements in leopard print, using the print as an extension of herself and those who held the torch of the untamed before her.
Leopard print is not only a tool of self expression, but a nurturing embrace to those who are truly wild at heart.