“As far as I’m concerned, leopard print is a neutral.”
Designer Jenna Lyons offered up that mantra in 2016. But to the fashion world, it’s an axiom that’s existed for decades, regardless of trend cycles.
We are now on yet another round of leopard mania, and the print continues to serve not only as an aesthetic neutral but also as a kind of democratic fashion touchstone, one of the rare instruments the industry can distribute equally to connoisseurs and the masses.
Its fashion legacy can be traced to designer Christian Dior’s groundbreaking New Look collection of 1947. From there, it has jumped from lowbrow to high society and back again, showing up on the shoulders and shoes of everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Snooki; embodying both the impossibly chic and the shockingly trashy, all at once.
It’s one of the few prints worn by First Ladies: Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton have all worn it. Leopard is also the preferred pattern of strippers, fictional “bad moms’ like Peg Bundy and The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson, and aughts-era Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton out on the town.
“Any lover (or hater, certainly) of leopard print knows that it’s so much more than just a print. It’s a statement, a symbol, an implication,” wrote Jo Weldon in her 2018 “Fierce: The History of Leopard Print.” The book was one of two tomes last year dedicated to the print’s influence on fashion and pop culture. Weldon also details its origins, from the Egyptian priestess Nefertiabet to 1920s Parisian chanteuse Josephine Baker, whose pet cheetah, Chiquita, attended her scandalous parties.
Currently, leopard has leaned more toward the middle of the road. This spring, the leopard-print midi skirt became an Instagram meme when the account @leopardmidiskirt began documenting feline hemlines appearing on the streets and subway platforms of New York. And J.Crew may now be Jenna Lyons-less, but the retailer is still offering up a collection of leopard rain jackets, sweaters, dresses and best-selling hair-calf pumps, pieces that are safe enough for the retailer’s middle-income and office-dwelling consumer but still exude a built-in confidence.
The leopard midi’s pedestrian ways have already earned it the “basic” label, and like any trend, its ubiquity puts it back on fashion’s endangered list. But the fact that it has become a widely accepted professional garment speaks to the dramatic shifts in social perception, power and confidence of the modern working woman in the past decade. And that’s pretty fierce.
Click here to see a history of celebs wearing leopard print.
18 Celebrities Who Wear Affordable Shoes
10 Times Celebs Upped Vans’ Cool Factor
The Controversial Thong Sandal Has Made a Big Return This Year