A Natural History of Leopard Print

As both an animal enthusiast and a rockabilly aficionado, it should come as a surprise to no one that I am a huge fan of leopard print. The primal power of leopard print is rooted in two wildly divergent strains of retro glamour, simultaneously stirring up cultural memories of a time before color photography and a time before agriculture. It is 1955 C.E. and it is 19,055 B.C.E. It is Cadillacs and wildebeest, hippies and hunter-gatherers, Zulu royalty and the Rolling Stones, Mickey Hartigay & Jayne Mansfield and Adam & Eve.

And part of me wishes they HAD been Adam & Eve.

Leopard print has never gone out of style — and has probably never not been in style, somewhere on Earth. (Many paleontologists believe that dinosaurs wore leopard-like spots.) Perhaps the reason for its endurance is that its parents are these two very different nostalgias. One is a deep-seeded yearning for the Paleolithic and pre-civilization, a length of time far longer than post-civilization humanity, when we as a species were in a more even conversation with nature and depended more on our physical prowess, our animal senses, and our understanding of the wilderness. To be sure, there are many people on Earth who are not far removed from this lifestyle, but for those of us in the “first world,” nostalgia for the time of spears and shamans exists as a distant cultural memory, perhaps stitched into the threads of our genetic code, like a dream we can’t quite remember yet which tugs on our hearts upon waking. We cannot shake the feeling that something, somehow led us astray from our true identity as the human ape, and adorning ourselves in leopard print reminds us of our species’ connection to wildlife of the world and our once-intimate relationship to it.

The other type of nostalgia, of course, is this:

My perfect world: 80% leopard print, 20% babe.

Without a book on fashion — and maybe some of you can help me out here — it is difficult to pinpoint when leopard print came to America, a land without leopards. (Although I’m sure the native Mayans, Aztecs and other Central American tribes had been rocking jaguar pelts for some time.) If I had to guess based on available photographs, I’d imagine that wearable leopard print — probably in the form of real leopard pelts — arrived in America in the beginning of the 20th Century from England, who had been busy raping Africa for the past century or two. In South Africa, the site of many an English war, tribal chiefs and their families wore leopard fur as a status symbol, a custom which continues today. It was a primarily masculine pattern then, associated with the hunters who killed the beast. Leopard pelts may have adorned the trophy room walls of Teddy Roosevelt and other blue-blooded American safari hunters, but it was women, notably in the 1940’s, who subverted this macho symbol into something both playful and political, fashioning scarves and skirts with the predator’s — and by association, the male hunter’s — primal power. The result was a bold, sexually explicit design that was anything but subtle.

Bad Kitty.

The original, primal symbolic meaning of leopard print met the modern symbol of female sexual empowerment in the 1950’s with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a sort of pin-up Tarzan:

Not a cat person, apparently.

Of course, once subverted, leopard print left itself vulnerable to more subversions. Leopard print became of of the standards of the free love and the hippie movement in the 1960’s. But it was also taken up by rock and rollers, of course, who have always endeavored to rebel with a little cross-dressing and a little hypersexualized androgyny. Little Richard, one of the godfathers of rock and roll, got his start playing in gay nightclubs where dressing in women’s prints wasn’t terribly unusual, and he brought that sense of style with him when he went mainstream, forever imprinting the fabric of rock and roll with fabulous feline rosettes.

Straight rock and rollers looking for a little sexual shock value followed suit:

And Liv Tyler sprung from his forehead, fully formed.

And some people, like Tom Leppard, “The Leopard Man,” have gone so far as to completely immerse themselves in leopard print forever.

But do the carpets match the drapes?

Leopard print is still popular today, perhaps because it never became too popular; not everyone has the prerequisite pomp to pull it off. It requires an unabashed sense of grandiosity and an implied sexual bravado. As a pattern, these little asymmetrical dots have conquered everything from panties to galoshes to sorority girl cowboy hats, swinger lounge lampshades to school backpacks. They may be worn to be cute, or they can be tragic. (Think of the leopard print shawls of older ladies at dive bars, advertising a beauty that is no longer mint.) But one thing leopard print is not is “safe.” You wear it to stand out from the crowd.

Or hide in the treetops, waiting to deal death from above. Either way.

Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of how a leopard wears its spots. The smallest of the four “big cats” in the Panthera genus (the others being the lion, tiger, and jaguar), it hunts mostly by stealth, and its cryptic coloration is key to its survival. It is not as fast as the cheetah, nor strong as the tiger or jaguar, nor a social hunter like the lion. It is not large enough to defend its kill from hyenas or other large predators. But its ability to hunt silently and nearly invisibly is what, until recently devastated by hunting and habitat loss, made the leopard the furthest-ranging large land predator in the world — it once hunted from the tip of South Africa to the islands of Indonesia. That range, combined with its deadly stalking abilities and nocturnal habits, is what has made the leopard perhaps the most feared and hated of the big cats, worldwide. But large predators, considered pests by ranchers and menaces by the rural public, have a way of becoming respected and immortalized after death, and so even with the future of its species hanging in the balance, the leopard still bedecks heraldic crests and presidential sashes. All spotted “animal print” designs, including jaguar, cheetah, and ocelot patterns, are dubbed “leopard print,” and a pantheon of spotted animals have earned the right to be named after the great hunter. It is a remarkably versatile pattern, capable of adapting to hide animals in a wide array of habitats, reflecting the interplay of light and shade in forest understory, desert rocks, and underwater. Let’s take a look at leopard print in the animal kingdom:

The leopard frog is wearing the latest North American designs in fourteen different styles, making a splash from the ponds of Vancouver down to the runways of Mexico City. With a chic simplicity that says “less is more,” the leopard frog’s big, bold spots are obviously influenced more by the cheetah than the leopard, but I love the personal touches it made to the basic pattern, making bold aquatic-themed blotches that pay homage to the frog’s freshwater habitat.

Diving deeper, we take the show to the Left Coast for a stunning display of maritime fashion with the leopard shark, a San Francisco Bay native and a must-know socialite around the local kelp forests. This petite shark has taken the nautical spot theme to extremes; notice how the contours of the shadows from the waves above hug the shark’s body and fit with the large buckle patters on the back. I’m expecting this design to become all the rage from the Gulf of California up to Portland among the elite shark circles in Spring of 2012. Fierce!

This leopard butterfly is doing something very fresh, very risky with the basic theme, and I’m not sure I like it. Substituting a tiger-like orange for tried-and-true leopardine gold, and crowding the spots along the wing edges… this just doesn’t seem like the kind of cryptic coloration the judges are going to go for. It’s a beautiful, even defiant piece of fashion, but does it really live up to the “leopard” brand? I can almost see why they call this the “Common” Leopard Butterfly.

This giant leopard moth, on the other hand, has the right amount of playful joie de vivre and classic composition in its entry. I love the Asian motif here, obviously modeling (mottling?) itself after the snow leopard of Afghanistan, making a bold political statement as well as an American artistic rebel yell. This number is a coup for fashionistas who live practically, making any moth blend right whether he’s at home near a porch light in New England or relaxing in the rocks on a snowy mountainside during a vacation in the Khyber Pass.

This leopard bush fish: No. Just, no. Those spots look like they were fingerpainted by a child. Listen, can we talk? This kind of thing might fly back home in the Congo River, but this won’t do for the international runway. It’s not that it’s not leopard print; it’s just that it’s so leopard print it’s an ugly giraffe.

I love the trend of accentuating the backside, and India’s leopard gecko not only has the leopard on the outside, it’s got a tiger in the tank. Baby got back! That callapygian posterior is a must-have accessory for summering in the Pakistani desert this year, but it’s the fabulous cryptic coloration that gives you that “coy” look when you’re being hunted down by the paparazzi or a pit viper. I think it’s safe to say: polka dots are out, leopard prints are in!

And probably forever, too. As you can see, leopard print has never been just for leopards. It is a universal motif, useful in many environments. Whatever new species arise in the future will stumble upon the luxurious leopard, a beautiful and practical print that obscures the body yet somehow glamorizes it at the same time. Should we time-travel to a far-away Earth, or space-travel to a far-away Earth-like planet, I think we’d find that leopard print will never go out of style on the animals of any planet with a yellow sun. It’s designed to blend in, worn to stand out, and looks good on just about anybody.

Even this guy.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

8 responses to “A Natural History of Leopard Print

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