The Evolution of Animal Print


The last decade has seen animal print resurge from near extinction to claim a lion’s share of the fashion kingdom. Our concrete jungles are teaming with python prints, zebra stripes and the leopard’s rosette. The twenty-first century has seen almost every major fashion institution emulate something from the wild. Labels such as Tom Ford, Gucci, Off-White, Saint Laurent, and even tartan-favouring Burberry have all had the print prowling down the (aptly named) catwalk — and it’s been selling in record numbers.

The Guardian reported that, in 2017, fast-fashion brand ASOS welcomed a £500m increase in sales due to the popularity of animal print. The clothing giant sold 1.3 million garments awash with the patterns of various jungle creatures, with over 2000 options available to consumers.

In the forests, grasslands, mountains, and deserts, animals use their patterned coats to blend in with their surroundings, effectively stalking potential prey (or hiding from becoming prey).

Spot the leopard

But in the metropolitan landscape, wearing these very same patterns can make a woman stand out. The visibility and impact of animal print has been exhaustively covered by fashion pundits, journalists, historians, and social commentators. But, what I feel has not been explored enough is how last century’s view of animal print, in fashion, painted certain perceptions of women, in that era — and it left a lot to be desired.

Through the latter half of the twentieth century animal print, leopard in particular, has ‘tried on’ many personas — from glamazon to gold-digger, pin-up girl to rockstar, trophy wife to trollop, heiress to airhead. They often differed vastly from one era to the next but with one significant thing in common: they all lend themselves to the idea of the hyper-sexualised woman, essentially designed for the male gaze. The print of an animal has long emulated exoticism, danger, and predatory proclivities, which have been transferred to their wearer, in varying shades, throughout the last century. This has been best exemplified through popular culture (film, television and print).

The late 1940s saw the rise of the popular detective genre, film noir, and with it came the birth of the infamous femme fatale: a morally ambiguous, ill-fated woman whose sexual allure would frequently drive men to their demise. This archetypal woman can often be seen draped in the distinct markings of wild beasts.

Veronica Lake as Susan Cleaver, who destroys a friendship between two men, in Saigon (1948)
Agnes Moorehead as Madge Rapf, the venegeful & jealous ex-girlfriend, in ‘Dark Passage’ (1947)

By the end of the 1940s Christian Dior had helped transport leopard print to the world of high fashion, inspired by his rosette-speckled muse, Mitzah Bricard [see image below]. But even Dior claimed: “If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it”, denoting the print was cast for a very specific type of woman.

The pin-up girls of the 1950s could rarely be construed as ‘fair or sweet’ and, along with their 1940s predecessors, were tarnished with the same objectified brush. Not only were these women posing in outfits patterned with various animal prints, they were often also surrounded by matching sets, props, or with the creatures themselves. This elicited an even more animalistic element to their oozing sex-appeal.

In her book, Fierce: The History of Leopard Print, Jo Weldon sets out the ‘misattribution of arousal’ – a psychological concept that sheds light on the sexual connotations associated with animal-print-donning women. Weldon explains that: “our physiological response of fear of these dangerous animals — pupil dilation and adrenaline flow — is translated by our brains into a sense of arousal.”

Women from this decade were wild, sexual creatures whom men wanted to tame and women wanted to emulate.

Gene Tierney with leopard (1954)
Marilyn Monroe (1955)

Films of the 1950s also commonly promoted these women as gold-diggers, such as How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The fifties pin-up ‘girl’ soon grew up and became the man-eating ‘older woman’, prominent in the sixties. Films such as The Graduate helped posit the stereotype of the predatory ‘cougar’ (another big cat), an older woman seeking out the affections of a much younger man.

Women like Zsa Zsa Gabor, who it is claimed had relations with her step-son, played out the cougar card in real life. She is also quoted saying, “I am a marvellous housekeeper: Every time I leave a man I keep his house.”

From gold-diggers to man-eaters, a woman who wore animal print was often seen as someone who exploits the young and the weak, using their lasciviousness as an instrument to get what they want.

What about Jackie Kennedy, you ask, surely she doesn’t fit that mould? She who, very famously, wore a real leopard fur coat in the sixties. Although Kennedy was not cut from the same cloth as Mrs Robinson, she was part of the upper echelons, a theme which has often ridden beside animal print’s more lusty undertones. Animal print, especially furs, alludes to luxury and wealth: being rich, beautiful, or famous, was a license to wear the patterns and pelts of exotic creatures (further back in history this was true of men too — worn by royalty and wealthy male dandies).

The ‘elite’ – A First Lady (Jackie Kennedy), a Queen (Elizabeth II) and a Princess (Grace Kelly)

This idea of exclusivity wove its way into the seventies and eighties when the motifs of wild creatures were adopted by rock royalty; here it almost became subversive, worn as an act of rebellion, of which flagrantly expressing their sexuality was a large part.

Grace Jones (1978)

Animal print continued to be worn by the ‘elite’ into the 1990s when it became the uniform of the supermodel, with a little help from Azzedine Alaïa.

Azzedine Alaia Fall/Winter Collection, 1991
Claudia Schiffer for Vogue (1992)

The nineties, however, saw a dichotomy emerge in animal print. Although it was touted by the army of supermodels prevalent in that era, for the first time in its long history, the jungle’s rosettes, stripes, spots and scales also found their way into the wardrobes of the middle (and working) class woman. Eccentric, exhibitionist, airheads, in music, film, and television were suddenly all adorned in the print of animals. If an animal-print adorned woman wasn’t part of the glamorous elite then she was tacky, trashy, or kitsch.

Alabama Whitman, True Romance (1993)

This brings us to the twenty-first century. In the last decade, there has been a significant shift, or diversification, in the users of animal print. For the first time in its history, animal print does not leave its mark on the wearer. Age, gender and class are no longer sewn into the social fabric of the print.

Today, animal print is ubiquitous; it can (and is) be worn by everyone and on any occasion, including, according to the Telegraph, in the work place (Forbes said this was okay back in 2013). All you have to do is google ‘how to wear animal print‘ and the top articles to pop up are from Net-a-Poter, Vogue and Cosmopolitan. The different colours and styles of the prints themselves pay testament to the diverse demographics of the modern animal print wearer.

Age, gender and class are no longer sewn into the social fabric of the print.

The sartorial vernacular around animal print no longer exists within the threshold of the male gaze. And it’s because women (and men) refuse to let it. The power of the creature behind the print itself still remains, capturing the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century. Those who identify as female are shedding their antiquated, repressed, skins like the snake* that they now wear as the pattern on their blouse. Women are taking more control of their bodies, their minds and their lives.

Those who identify as female are shedding their antiquated, repressed, skins like the snake that they now wear as the pattern on their blouse.

Recent events in our society and around the world have demonstrated women taking a firm hold of their own futures, and going from strength to strength in the process: Saudi women, since 2018 are now legally allowed to drive a vehicle; there is the largest number of women in Congress in the US, ever – including WOC and queer women; Katie Bouman played a key part in the creation of the world-first image of an actual black hole; the UK made it illegal to use gender stereotypes in advertising; the International Transgender Day of Visibility came into affect in 2009; Iceland made it illegal to pay women less than men; at least 2 million women, in seven continents, rallied for equality after Donald Trump’s inauguration and movements such as #metoo and #timesup became a global phenomenon. This is only a snapshot!

Animal print, for the first time in its centuries-long career, represents an evolving and empowering time for women. It is proof that, in fashion, as a projection of the society in which we live, a leopard might actually be able to change its spots.


*Snakeskin, historically, was a print worn more by men, a phallic symbol denoting power and masculinity. Cool, careless, dangerous men were the types who wore snakeskin – demonstrated in films such as The Fugitive Kind (1960) and Wild at Heart (1990). Quite striking how different this was from leopard on women.