Leopard spots, tiger stripes, snake skin. Animal prints have been around, in some shape or form, for centuries. Here, a look back at the evolution of this striking motif.
Few patterns are more timeless than animal prints. No matter the season, the year, or the price point, it’s almost always been possible to stock your wardrobe—and home—with the likes of leopard, cheetah, zebra, and more.
While animals themselves often use their spots or stripes as a form of camouflage, humans draping themselves in tiger print, say, are usually looking to stand out from the crowd. That particular desire can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, on through the Roman Empire, 17th-century England, old Hollywood, and every place and time in-between.
With that in mind, let’s embark on a design safari, of sorts . . .
Ancient Power Prints
When we talk about the early days of animal prints, we’re really just talking about actual furs and skins. The goal, however, remained the same—channel some of the animal’s fierce power by donning its pelt.
The pharaohs Tutankhamun and Ay were known to wear leopard skins (heads, paws, and all) to convey their superiority as leaders. Seshat, the Egyptian goddess of wisdom and writing, was often depicted in leopard skin as well, symbolizing her power over the then-common danger of predatorial big cats.
Outside of pharaohs and gods, the only other ancient Egyptians who could wear fur were high priests, and even then only during ceremonial events.
In ancient Greece, the god Dionysus was often pictured wearing a leopard skin. And, in Phrygia, the goddess Cybele was usually depicted near the animals. Over in Rome, regular humans wore fur, too, but only if they were wealthy and powerful. The emperor Honorius even issued a decree that banned his court from wearing fur, presumably to keep it scarce (and thus valuable).
Fur Goes Global
As global exploration and trade ramped up in the 1500s, so too did the appetite for exotic animal skins imported to Europe from Asia and Africa.
By the 18th century, young English aristocrats traveling to the continent for their Grand Tour would return with real furs, or printed clothing made in France and Italy. In Venceslao Verlin’s 1768 painting An Interior with Elegant Company, for example, a dapper gent pairs his leopard-print breeches with a matching waistcoat.
Over in Paris, Napoleon also kicked off a craze for animal skins and prints after he visited North Africa in the 1800s and returned with fur rugs. Because they were expensive and hard to acquire, fur rugs rapidly became a sought-after status symbol among aristocrats.
Leopard fur was also popular in southern Africa, where the animals actually lived. The Zulu people revered the cats, and later, the Shembe religion incorporated the pelts into their ceremonies. (They have since switched to faux fur for conservation reasons.)
Furs and skins remained the province of the wealthy until the 20th century, when mass production made it easy to print zebra stripes and giraffe spots on . . . everything. Once again, leopard was at the forefront of the animal print craze, alongside other big cat patterns like tiger, cheetah, and jaguar.
Two of the earliest trendsetters were Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, who wore tons of animal print as Tarzan and Jane in 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man—and its five sequels. The movies were enormously popular, and by the 1940s, everyone was ready to walk on the wild side.
At this point, the range of what an animal print could express about its wearer also started to change. Pinup star Bettie Page made it sultry, posing in printed bikinis with live cheetahs. While Christian Dior made it elegant, showing leopard print on the runway in his iconic New Look collection of 1947. Jacqueline Kennedy put her indelible spin on the trend in 1962, wearing a leopard fur coat designed by Oleg Cassini.
The look was everywhere in Hollywood, too, with Eartha Kitt, Jayne Mansfield, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Elizabeth Taylor all taking exotic prints for a spin throughout the 1960s. Even Bob Dylan immortalized the trend in his 1966 tune “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” possibly inspired by fashion plate and Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick.
Adding an Edge
After society ladies and silver-screen legends had their way with animal prints in the ’60s, the ’70s introduced a wilder, less refined version of the trend. An animal print still conveyed a sense of power on the wearer, but once it became easier to find the patterns in stores, the association with money and exclusivity collapsed.
By the 1980s, animal print was bigger than ever, coming in colors not found in nature—blue zebra, purple cow, and so on—and popping up on everything from skimpy bikinis to office-appropriate wrap dresses.
The People’s Print
Though animal prints of all species were widely available by the early ’90s, they still retained a certain air of trashiness in some circles. Think of Peg Bundy in an off-the-shoulder zebra top on Married . . . With Children, or The Nanny’s Fran Fine whining for Mr. Sheffield in sequined leopard.
These women were too sexy, too independent, too much. By 2000, though, the pendulum had started to swing back, and animal print was once again elegant (and, if someone thought it wasn’t, it was OK not to care).
In 2009, for example, Maggie Gyllenhaal attended the Golden Globes in a bright blue and fuchsia leopard-print gown by Lanvin. Four years later, Jennifer Lopez hit the Met Gala red carpet in a sheer Michael Kors number covered in something between cheetah and giraffe. (That year’s theme, not coincidentally, was punk.)
As first lady, Michelle Obama wore a sequined, white and pink leopard-spotted cardigan, expertly mixing functionality with fun.
On the less imitable side of things, Beyoncé tapped into the full history of animal prints for her 2020 film Black Is King, which showed her in a leopard-print Valentino catsuit, lounging on a leopard-print Rolls-Royce, surrounded by dancers clad in leopard-print suits.
It only makes sense. What else would modern-day royalty wear?
A few more fashion-forward beauties for you:
Image via Shutterstock’s Animal Prints Collection.