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The pattern that drives us wild.
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Leopard print is having a moment. In 2020, US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rented a luxe version, rendered in sequins, for a television appearance. Adele wore a leopard-print dress to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s post-Oscars party that same year. While designers have layered it on in women’s coats, tops, skirts, and shoes, labels such as Celine, Sacai, and Comme des Garçons—in technicolor variations—have lately woven it through their men’s collections, too.
These days it’s a fabric for anyone, but this wasn’t always the case. At various times in history it’s been the preserve of the royal, the society lady, and the pinup model, but not necessarily the girl (or boy) next door. In part that’s because, until relatively recently, the best place to get leopard print was the leopard itself. It required technological advances to print the intricate coat of Panthera pardus onto a fabric accessible to the general population. Now that we’ve done it, we can’t seem to get enough.
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By the digits
160%: Growth in sales of leopard-print fashion recorded by payment-services company Square from 2018 to 2019
250,000: Leopards whose deaths designer Oleg Cassini blamed himself for by dressing Jacqueline Kennedy in a leopard-fur coat that popularized the look
9: Subspecies of leopard
50 ft (15 m): Distance a snow leopard can leap in one bound
$4,500: Cost of the leopard-print maxi dress in a wool-polyamide blend from Gucci’s spring 2019 collection
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In ancient Egypt, the source and rarity of leopard skin gave it power. Priests wore leopard skins slung across their chests. A leopard cloak was among the items found buried with King Tutankhamun. One can imagine the life-threatening difficulty in obtaining it. “Of course, everywhere big cats have been known, wearing their pelts and patterns has had meaning, and those meanings always relate to the characteristics of the animals themselves,” writes author and burlesque expert Jo Weldon in Fierce: The History of Leopard Print.
Beside the pyramids in Giza is the tomb of Nefertiabet, sister or daughter of Khufu, the Egyptian king who commanded the Great Pyramid be built. A stone relief from the tomb, dating to roughly 4,600 years ago, depicts Nefertiabet sitting serenely before her food for the afterlife, wearing a one-shoulder leopard dress. It looks like something you might find in a store today.
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“To wear leopard you must have a kind of femininity which is a little bit sophisticated. If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.”
—Christian Dior, The Little Dictionary of Fashion
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In the wild, a leopard’s coat helps it disappear into its surroundings. On humans, it’s a way to stand out. There’s a reason movies and music videos love leopard.
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The way we 🐆 now
By the 18th century, European fashion adopted leopard fur for its beauty and perceived exoticism, ultimately remaking it in fabric through painstaking embroidery or brocade. But it wasn’t until the 20th century, after the rise of industrial textile manufacturing, that it became widely accessible.
In 1947, Christian Dior introduced his “new look.” Inspired by his muse, Mitzah Bricard, who often accessorized with leopard, Dior worked with a silk manufacturer to develop the “Jungle” print on three of his exquisite dresses.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, it was sexed up in lingerie and swimwear. In the 1970s, it became outrageous. Punk absorbed it, and 1980s pop stars like Madonna would pick it up. On the low end it became tacky, while on the high end designers such as Azzedine Alaïa and Gianni Versace continued to prize it. Jenna Lyons, former creative director of J.Crew, has even been credited for promoting leopard print as a neutral.
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A leopard’s marks aren’t really spots. They’re rosettes—basically a broken black circle, vaguely resembling a rose viewed from overhead, with a dark tawny center.
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This one weird trick!
British mathematician Alan Turing is best known for breaking the German Enigma code during World War II and laying part of the foundation for modern computer science, but he also published a theory on how animals such as leopards develop their markings. His 1952 paper, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis,” offered a mathematical model to describe the way chemical substances called “morphogens” (meaning “shape-formers”) could interact to produce elaborate patterns.
Biologists largely ignored Turing’s idea for decades. However, in 2006, for instance, two researchers using a computer model found by tweaking Turing’s model they could explain how a leopard’s spots changed as it grew from infancy to adulthood. In 2014, researchers at Brandeis University and the University of Pittsburgh said they produced the first experimental evidence to validate Turing’s theory. Another group at King’s College London found the ridges on the roof of a mouse’s mouth form just as Turing described.
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What’s the difference between a leopard, a jaguar, and a panther? It can be easy to mix them up, but if you want to get all felinological about it, leopards and jaguars are distinct in numerous ways, including their coats, size, and habitats. If you’re talking about a panther as in a black panther, well that’s not even a separate species. It’s an umbrella term for any big cat with a black coat, like say a black jaguar or black leopard. What about the Florida panther? That’s a subspecies of puma, or cougar, or mountain lion, depending what you want to call it.