Disclaimer: I am not a fashion historian by any accreditation, academia, or profession, but naturally- an inquisitive enjoyer of all things related to vintage clothes and the stories they tell. My blogs are a mix of personal opinions, my experiences with styling and clothes, answers to my own questions, and reliable research, which I’ve sourced at the bottom of the page!
Throughout history, whether it be the Ancient Egyptians or the Supermodels of the 1990s, animal print has held meaning. It's dressed its wearers in such themes as shame, seduction and allure, power and prestige, rebellion, tackiness.. the list goes on. What I aim to do, is to tackle these changing views from a cultural standpoint as they happen throughout time. For time's sake, I won't be hitting on every single moment in history someone wore animal print, but I'll start with the big hitters.
Adam and Eve
First, let's go back to the beginning of time. Yes, I'm talking Biblical proportions. Because, as I wracked my brain as to the first TRUE dressing of animal print began (since ya know, I've been here for so long), it dawned on me to go back to the proposed first instance of human-animal interaction...which brings us to Genesis, Chapter 1:
24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
I'm sharing what I thought to be a very interesting relationship Adam and Eve were made to have with the animals. With man given dominion over the animals, they lived together in harmony. And up until the fall of man, where both Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, there are no mention of either of them killing them. There was no need. God had provided everything. They were unashamed of their bodies, they didn't wear clothes, and they didn't require to kill or eat animals. But once sin entered the world, we see where things begin to shift in Chapter 3:
21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
In early Christian depictions of The Fall, we see this "skin" God has clothed Adam and Eve is depicted as animal skins. Some people believe the "skin" that was referred to was their human skin. (record stop: this suggests Adam and Eve were more than just "human," as The Garden of Eden was Heaven on Earth....)
But moving right along with our theme, I'd like to note some symbolism.
Whether or not the skin was animal or not has been debated, but overall, the "putting on" of skin connotes a loss of innocence, or to cover up from something. It implies an almost earthly degradation. Adam and Eve had to continue to kill (to commit sin) in order to survive. So you see this putting on of the skin as the Welcome to Your New Reality committee. And pretty much, it all turned to $hiT after that. Cain kills his brother Abel, God floods the entire earth, Noah's got to put his family and two types of every animal on the Ark...you get it. Moving on!
The Ancient World
Now we're in some of my favorite territories!
Below: Ay as Sem Priest in the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
(source: Flikr. Photographer linked)
Wearing leopard print was often associated with high priests and Seshat, the goddess of wisdom, scribes, knowledge, measurement, and libraries. To wear the Symbol of Seshat, as these leopard skins were called, was to ward off the evil of the god Set. (1)
Over time, however, leopard and cheetah skin grew to be worn by royal or esteemed members of upper Egyptian society, as pictured to the left. This is an Ancient Egyptian stele of Nefertiabet, an ancient Egyptian princess wearing a leopard gown. Buzzwords: princess + leopard + gown. It is often told that Egyptians owned exotic pets of all kinds: crocodiles, leopards, cheetahs, monkeys, and ownership of such exotic beasts is the showmanship of power. There was the goddess Bastet, who, at her calm nature, depicted a cat, and at her destructive and wild nature, depicted the angry lioness goddess, Sekhmet. On one end, as Bastet, she was the goddess of the home, domesticity, women's secrets, cats, fertility, and childbirth. She protected the home from evil spirits and disease, especially diseases associated with women and children. On the other end, as the goddess Sekhmet, she was a warrior who represented kingly protection and was said to be Pharaoh's guardian goddess.
Goodness. That's a lot to unpack, but it's clear that the femme fetale motif that leopard brings started early on in the form of feline goddesses and the power of the leopard pelt.
You're familiar with Hercules, right? No. Not that guy... THIS GUY: (Heracles)
Source: Boston 99.538, Attic bilingual amphora, ca. 525-500 B.C.
Photograph courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. H. L. Pierce Fund
In Greek Mythology, Heracles was given 12 labors to complete in order to compensate for the killing of his wife Megara and children after being made crazy by the goddess Hera. He was under the orders of King Eurystheus, to whom he was held accountable for completing each task. These labors were, to an average human, impossible to complete. But - when you're a demigod whose father is Zeus, well, off he went. The first task? Killing the Nemean Lion. Impenetrable to Heracle's arrows, he hatched a plan to trap the lion in a cave, ending the lion's life by choking it in an arm lock. When Heracles returned to King Eurystheus, the king was fearful and barred Hercules from coming into the city (because what human kills a giant lion by hand?). While the above depiction on the right shows Hercules in a lion's pelt, Ancient writers disagreed as to whether or not the skin belonged to the Nemean lion, or to the one Heracles was rumored to have killed when he was 18 years old. The playwright Euripides wrote that Heracles' lion skin came from the grove of Zeus, which is a temple at Nemea:
"First he cleared the grove of Zeus of a lion, and put its skin upon his back, hiding his yellow hair in its fearful tawny gaping jaws. Euripides, Heracles, 359" (2)
Regardless, the defeat of the lion against the great and mighty Heracles signaled a mighty warrior strength. To conquer the "King of the Jungle" was no small feat, and wearing its pelt, implied one's own "wearing" or the donning of power.
In both Ancient instances, wearing the fur of these animals signifies power, knowledge, protection, mastery of sorts, and influence. Keep those in the back of your mind as we move onto our next topic...
Recognize that black and white pattern? Well, it's not dalmatian. It's ermine, aka the Armenian Rat... aka... a type of weasel! And it was the most sought-after fur when it came to royalty. You can almost find it almost any official portraiture of a monarch. Wearing this print was a projection of power and wealth and it's probably because it took a large number of people to hunt, prepare, and design.
Matched equally with the symbolism for power, is its relation to purity. The ermine's coat turns brown during the summer and is "reborn" to white in the winter, meant to signify Christ's Ressurection. With the monarchy designated as the head of The Church, well, you can imagine the symbolism behind wearing the print of such a saintly little animal. Interesting fact: It is said that the ermine would often give itself up to hunters rather than sully its beautiful pelt.
You've got to hand it to Queen Elizabeth I. The above portrait is 100% "I'm in charge, don't mess with me." The ceremonial dress of the monarchy, topped with ermine fur is a few things: celestial, hinting the closeness to God, it's gaudy, showing an exuberance of wealth and
power, it's stately, symbolizing their hierarchy in the realm of politics, and it's fashionable, giving way to their place in culture, and usually, their formulation of it.
(below picture) Tailors working on King George VI’s ermine coronation robe, 1937
I want to zip all the way to the 20th century, where we see animal print take on many roles as we progress through modern fashion and style. From temptress to cougar to bad n' boujee to tacky - animal print has truly seen (and been) it all.
As film noir blossoms, so does this idea of the femme fatale, and I think Shoshington said it right when she says this type of dame is a "morally ambiguous, ill-fated woman whose sexual allure would frequently drive men to their demise." (3) Geez, this woman sounds like a type of predator. What's typical of the character is that she would often be found wearing animal print, as a display of her can't-be-tamed attitude. We always want what we can't have, and in the case of the 1940s, it's always the lady who's just out of reach. (Veronica Lake as Susan Cleaver, who destroys a friendship between two men, in Saigon (1948)
“If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it”, was famously said by Christian Dior in regards to a lady wearing leopard print. Dior's famous muse, Mitzah Bricard, inspired his many high fashion leopard-laden designs, especially as its notoriety grew to prestigious levels. It was at this point that animal print was molded to represent the classic bombshell.
But that's not all! We now see women dressing in head-to-toe animal print. From Bettie Page to Ava Gardner, there's no taking animal print "lightly." Instead, you see it everywhere! Even being photographed with the animals themselves. In the age of pinups, to wear animal print was to imply sexiness, and to incite unattainable desire towards the wearer. In movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we even see women taking on the role of the golddigger and maneater. These images of prowess inspired men to want them, and women to want to be them.
In the sixties, we see this prowess evolve into a new type of "prey on the weak" stereotype known as the 'cougar,' which coincidently, is also the name of a big cat. From real-life cougar Zsa Zsa Gabor, who famously claimed to have relations with her step-son, to The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson luring the college grad Dustin Hoffman, we see animal print accompany the likes of women who "prey on the weak," just as much as we begin to see it worn by the elite such as Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly! It's at this interesting time during the sixties and well into the seventies that animal print begins to catch the eye of the upper echelon of society once again. Animal print and its furs, often nodded to luxury and being rich, beautiful, or famous, alluding to being able to afford patterns and pelts of exotic creatures. Remember we saw this with monarchs as well?
And I want to take a minute here to reflect on something. It occurred to me that as I was searching for photos, I seldom found black women in animal print. My only inference to this might've been there simply weren't as many photographed because the black woman was seldom celebrated, or recognized as loudly in the fashionable society. This doesn't ring true for stars like Eartha Kitt, or Tina Turner, who donned leopard in the 60s and 70s famously and fabulously, but this sort of conclusion is sadly, kind of common for vintage photographs. Not as much of "black life" was documented to the same extent.
All in all, we see animal print, more particularly, leopard print, symbolize chic, expensive, and once again... power. Hold on to that, because we're going to see just how the rebelliousness of the late 70s and 80s comes to shake that up.
What I've begun to notice is how various groups of society have taken animal print and molded it into their respective worlds. Take the rockers of the 70s and 80s. We now see leopard making its way into a more "rebellious" crowd - ones who like to play their music loud and go against the mere politeness of societal norms. We see this reflected in rock nobility like Sid and Nancy, Joan Jett, Prince, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant (to name a few!) Even Madonna, very much known for popping the bubble on "appropriateness" through fashion, music, and sexuality, dons leopard in a flagrant disregard for what other people think. In this way, leopard isn't just for those that can afford it - it represents a wildness, a tameless appeal. Think "wild child."
And I can't even think of the word "leopard" without even picturing Rod Stewart. Let's just leave this here, shall we? (also. this entire look. GIVE. ME.) !!!!!!
We have reached a new set of decades, and this time, we're focusing on animal print as a movement of the supermodels. That's right. Designers everywhere are pumping out animal print to get onto our favorite ladies of the 90s. To me, honing in on supermodels wearing animal print brings out some sort of exoticism to the fashion industry. Putting models in head-to-toe leopard print, as Azzedine Alaia did in his 1991 Fall/Winter Collection highlights these Amazon women as "untouchable"- once again, symbolizing something men often wanted and women could only dream of being. The models of the 90s were iconic! They were powerful, and not only in their donning of leopard were they catlike, but in their body movements and coyness shone on runway and camera.
A trickle-down effect takes places, as animal print begins to become more mainstream. We begin to see the fun "girl next door" and whimsical characters of popular culture wearing animal print. For the first time in a long time, zebra stripes and snake skins are no longer a reflection of high society, but an adopted adornment by the middle and working class. Fran in the Nanny, Hilary Banks from Fresh Prince, Tia and Tamara of Sister Sister, all dressing in animal print, stepping away from the idea that you had to be elite to wear it. However, I truly believe there came a point in the 90s that if you were wearing leopard and you weren't handsomley rich, you were tacky, cheesy, and a little kitsch.
Animal print has worn many faces in the past:
Pure, Sexy, Powerful, Rebellious, Elite, Wild, Tacky.
And now? I believe it's whatever it wants to be to whomever wants to wear it. Leopard, zebra, tiger, python - you name it. As a rule of thumb, some say to stay away from wearing too many prints at once, but I say, if you know how to play it up, play it up BIG. Animal print will never cease to have a part to play in fashion, as evident through the centuries of heiroglyhs, monarchal portraits, and our favorite style icons. As Shoshington so eloquently stated, "age, gender and class are no longer sewn into the social fabric of the print." (3) So, ROAM FREE my friends! Animal prints are no longer equated with any one box. We don't put leopard print in a corner anymore.
So enjoy it, don't overthink it, and wear the way that best speaks to your personal style! Comment or tag me @themixedvintage so I can see how YOU rock your animal print!
Here are some of the ways I style my animal print! (not to mention, I wear a permanent set of tiger stripes on my left arm!)
1. McCammon, Ellen. “Who Is Bastet? Complete Guide to the Egyptian Cat Goddess.” PrepScholar, 4 Nov. 2016, blog.prepscholar.com/bastet-egyptian-cat-goddess.
2. “Perseus Project: Hercules’ First Labor: The Nemean Lion.” Hercules: Greece’s Greatest Hero, 2 Sept. 2008, www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/lion.html.
3. Shoshington, By: “The Evolution of Animal Print.” S H O S H I N G T O N, 2 Nov. 2020, www.shoshington.com/2019/05/05/the-evolution-of-animal-print/