Should Leopards Be Paid for Their Spots?
by Rebecca Mead / March 21, 2022

“When Jacqueline Kennedy was living in the White House, in the early sixties, she relied upon the taste of Oleg Cassini, the costume designer turned couturier, to supply her with a wardrobe that would befit her role as First Lady, one of the most photographed women in the world. In 1962, Cassini provided her with a striking leopard coat. Knee-length, with three-quarter sleeves and six buttons that fastened across the chest, the coat was not made from a synthetic leopard-patterned fabric. Rather, it consisted of the pelts of several formerly wild, living leopards, which had been hunted and slaughtered for their alluring, treacherous skins. Fashion-wise, the garment was a great success: the demand for Jackie-style leopard coats soared. For leopards, the trend was a disaster. It has been estimated that a quarter of a million leopards died to satisfy consumers wanting to dress like Jackie. A decade after Cassini made the First Lady’s coat, the U.S. government placed leopards on the endangered-species list, making it illegal to import their skins. It is an irony of nature that although the leopard’s spots—or, more accurately, rosettes—evolved as a form of camouflage, the same characteristics that allow leopards to lurk unseen by their prey in a dappled forest or on a dusty savanna render the creature’s hide irresistibly eye-catching to human observers.

Leopard skin has been repurposed as prestigious clothing for humans for millennia, notably by the ancient Egyptians, for whom feline characteristics were linked with aspects of divinity: Bastet, a goddess associated with femininity and a protector of the home, was represented as a woman with the head of a lioness. An Egyptian stela dating from more than four and a half thousand years ago, now in the collection of the Louvre, depicts the Princess Nefertiabet dressed in what looks like elegant contemporary evening wear. Seated, she is clad in a slim, ankle-length sheath spotted with the rosettes of a leopard. The garment may be made from the skin of a leopard, but it may also be trompe-l’oeil: the Egyptians not only wore leopard pelts but also painted linen with spots to resemble them, or wove the pattern into woollen fabric, according to Shannon Bell-Price and Elyssa Da Cruz, the authors of an essay in “Wild: Fashion Untamed,” a publication to accompany a show that opened in 2004 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bell-Price and Da Cruz note that the representation of a fringe on the bottom of a garment is a telltale sign that it is definitively faux, not fur.

“Princess Nefertiabet of Egypt”

This cognitive split between species and pattern—between the leopard and its spots—has lately become the subject of academic study, with conservation-minded scholars analyzing data generated by fashion trends. Caroline Good Markides, formerly a research fellow in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, did not set out to be an advocate for animals; her background is as an art historian, with a focus on British art of the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century. In her doctoral research, she examined the then emergent genre of still-life painting, or “dead-standing things,” as such works were first characterized in English in the middle of the seventeenth century. At the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, which Good Markides joined early in her career, her work involved exploring the cultural significance of representations of endangered wildlife in art. One day, during a staff discussion about the plight of lions, several colleagues remarked on the difficulty of engendering interest in them in Britain, given that lions are not native to the country. “I was thinking about it afterward, and I realized that, actually, there are lions everywhere,” Good Markides told me recently.

There are the three heraldic lions passant guardant—striding, with heads turned toward the viewer—that have been included on the royal arms of England since the late twelfth century. There are the four bronze lions reclining on pedestals at the foot of Nelson’s Column, in Trafalgar Square, a feature of the cityscape since the eighteen-sixties. There are the three lions emblazoned on the English soccer team’s shirt and celebrated in the chart-topping anthem of the sport in England, “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)”; a crowned lion is the emblem of the Premier League, the U.K.’s top-tier soccer league. Even British eggs have lions on them, stamped with the image of the beast as a quality seal since the late nineties. Despite lions having died out in Britain more than twelve thousand years ago, the creature still has a charged symbolic power—one that could be harnessed, Good Markides speculated, to the benefit of lions themselves.

In 2017, Good Markides, with colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, published an opinion piece in an academic journal titled “A Cultural Conscience for Conservation.” In the article, Good Markides and her co-authors, Dawn Burnham and David W. Macdonald, suggested a novel method of raising funds for conservation: a “species royalty” for the use of animal symbolism. When a song or a design is used for the promotion of a product or an event, a royalty is paid to its creator, they pointed out. What if a fee were owed to an endangered species every time its image or characteristics were co-opted by commerce? Good Markides and her co-authors calculated that, if a levy as minuscule as one-tenth of a penny were applied to each lion-stamped egg sold in Britain, that would result annually in revenues of ten and a half million pounds, or about fourteen million dollars. A levy of one pound on each Premier League soccer shirt sold would raise about six and a half million dollars—enough, the authors pointed out, to employ four thousand trained “lion guardians” to watch over and protect populations of the animal in East Africa for a year. While making a case for a species royalty for the English national animal—“the Lion’s Share,” as they catchily dubbed it—Good Markides and her colleagues also raised the issue of the unwitting cultural contributions made by another big cat, whose image is arguably even more exploited than the lion’s: the leopard. What if the cultural power of leopard print, that omnipresent fashion staple, could be turned to the advantage of the endangered animal to whom it rightfully belongs? Leopard print “saturates both high-street and high-fashion,” the authors wrote. If a species royalty were levied on the use of the pattern, Good Markides and her co-authors argued, the leopard could become “the cash-cow of the jungle.”

Leopard print first entered Western fashion in a recognizably modern way—as a compelling pattern that is mostly divorced, conceptually, from its animal-kingdom origins—in late-eighteenth-century France. Designers, adding to their repertoire of floral-patterned dresses, began creating new gowns from light, pliable fabrics printed with stylized replicas of big-cat camouflage. Judging from how such fabrics were represented at the time, leopard print was, from the start, an edgy choice. A late-eighteenth-century etching by Louis Bosse titled “La Matinée (L’heureuse Union)” shows a young woman perched on a man’s knee; she wears a loose-fitting gown, or matinée, hemmed with a band of leopard-printed fabric that falls like silk, her sensuality amplified by her association with the wild animal whose patterns her garment alludes to. Another image from the era, published in Le Cabinet des Modesou les Modes Nouvelles, shows a woman in a wig and feather-decked hairpiece, carrying an enormous white fur muff; her gown is edged with lace but is otherwise fashioned from spotted fabric that resembles the pelt of a cheetah. (The term “leopard print,” as Jo Weldon points out in “Fierce,” her cultural history of the pattern, is used loosely to apply to designs that are based on the pelts of a range of big cats, including not just Panthera pardus, the leopard proper, but also jaguars, ocelots, and others.)

“John Campbell, in 1778, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds”

Le Cabinet des Modes, often called the world’s first fashion magazine, was a venue for dressmakers to advertise their services to the affluent, but its pages were also used to provide inspiration to a wider readership who aspired to dress fashionably. A cheetah-patterned gown would likely have been a startling and provocative suggestion—and the print would not have been reserved for women only. The collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, includes a French men’s frock coat from the seventeen-eighties, the silk-velvet pile of which is woven with black-and-white spots. The background color, originally a turquoise that has now faded to a silvery-blue sheen, indicates that the coat was not intended to give the appearance of actually being made from fur—unlike the leopard-spotted waistcoat worn under a ruby-colored, fur-trimmed coat by John Campbell, the first Baron of Cawdor, in a portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds a few years earlier, the tawny hues of which are very like those of the animal it mimics. Rather, the turquoise frock coat takes the leopard’s spots and abstracts them into a fascinating pattern that remains at an aesthetic distance from the creature that inspired it.

“The eighteenth-century Swedish baroness Charlotte du Rietz”

In eighteenth-century portraiture, leopard pelt or print was a marker of wealth and luxury, though artists also drew upon its connotations in classical mythology to suggest the individual characters of their sitters. Marie-Aurore de Saxe, a French noblewoman and freethinker, was painted in the guise of Diana, the huntress, wearing a leopard-print gown with billowing sleeves and a plunging bosom. Charlotte du Rietz, a worldly Swedish baroness, also chose to be depicted as Diana, dressed in a leopard-pelt robe and a floral choker, bearing a spear. Leopard print was associated with chastity—Diana is the chastity goddess—although that link had dwindled by the time the design was disseminated into mainstream fashion, in the twentieth century. Yet its suggestion of independent-mindedness arguably endured. Weldon, the author of “Fierce,” notes that in the nineteen-thirties leopard was usually considered sporty—suitable for head scarves, summer dresses, and outdoor activities.

“Joan Crawford, in 1928”

But the print also became a signifier of élite glamour: it was worn by movie stars from Joan Crawford, who was pictured looking sylphlike in a silk dress with leopard-print trim, to Carole Lombard, in a jacket with leopard-print collar and cuffs, and from Jayne Mansfield in a leopard-print bikini to Audrey Hepburn in a leopard-print pillbox hat. Josephine Baker went one step further, accessorizing herself with a pet cheetah named Chiquita. Christian Dior, in his couture collection of 1947, presented a fluid sheath dress in leopard print that he named “Jungle”—a rare, if now clunkily exoticizing, allusion to the native habitat of the wild creature whose spotted back Dior was profiting from. Today, leopard print has been democratized, and mainstreamed. It no longer signifies a rebellious punk aesthetic, as it did when a young Debbie Harry wore a skintight leopard jumpsuit in 1979; nor does it connote untamed carnality, as it did when an even younger Steven Tyler wore his own skintight leopard jumpsuit, three years earlier. If leopard does still carry a hint of subversion and sensuality, it does so in a way that is compatible with professionalism and probity.

“Josephine Baker and her pet cheetah, 1931”

Often, when worn in public life, leopard bestows the flavor of edginess where none is naturally occurring: consider, for example, the much chronicled leopard-print kitten heels favored by Theresa May, Britain’s former Prime Minister. Sometimes it signals a barely concealed carnivorousness, as in the case of the lawyer Sidney Powell, a former member of Donald Trump’s legal team, whose wardrobe includes multiple leopard tops. Leopard print may have reached the apotheosis of respectability when, in early 2020, the irreproachable Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and the future Queen of England, was photographed wearing a midi-length, floaty pleated skirt patterned with leopard spots. It was swiftly reported that the skirt came from the high-street brand Zara, where it was on sale for thirteen dollars if you could find it, which you definitely couldn’t. To what extent does the modern wearer of leopard print perceive the fashion choice as having anything to do with the wild animals that roam, in diminishing numbers, in Africa and Asia? This is the question that Good Markides, after publishing “A Cultural Conscience for Conservation,” sought to tackle next, suspecting that a dissociation between the print and the animal itself might get in the way of encouraging leopard conservation through fashion. Last year, Good Markides, along with her co-authors Macdonald and Burnham, and with the contribution of Tom Moorhouse, published a follow-up paper, “Connecting the Spots: Leopard Print Fashion and Panthera pardus Conservation.” They attempted, for the first time, to measure connections between the wearing of leopard print and our awareness of leopards.

“A Parisian woman and her cheetah, 1932”

In the paper, Good Markides and her colleagues noted the perennial popularity of leopard print: while other styles wax and wane, leopard is a fashion-industry constant, both in high-end labels and in budget brands. (You can buy a georgette leopard-print blouse at Dolce & Gabbana for $1,095; you can also buy a ruffled, off-the-shoulder leopard-print blouse for $11.99 from Walmart.) By analyzing data from Internet search engines, traditional editorial media, and social-media platforms, Good Markides discovered that although consumer interest in animal print varies from year to year, it reliably rises in the fall, between October and December, and declines in late spring; leopard print is featured most prominently in the season-setting September issues of fashion magazines. Interest in leopard print is higher in some parts of the world than in others, she found: Northern Europe and East Asia are home to the most avid aficionados, while “leopard print” is far less frequently Googled in the Middle East and Central Africa, regions of the world where actual leopards can still be found.

“Actress Phyllis Gordon with her Cheetah”

By analyzing Instagram hashtags, Good Markides found that leopard print was associated with a wide range of aesthetics, “from ‘professionalism’ to ‘punk.’ ” But, she added, “while it is highly adaptable in its wearability, our insights into the emotions it evokes offer little evidence that they are at all related to issues surrounding biodiversity loss and the extinction crisis.” Good Markides and her co-authors speculated that the prevalence of leopard print in fashion might even have the effect of misrepresenting the prevalence of real leopards in their native habitat, functioning as “a virtual population whose widespread abundance creates a delusion that the wild population is similarly commonplace.” The challenge for conservationists, Good Markides and her co-authors argued, is to find ways to divert the appetite for leopard print, at least in part, toward a sense of obligation to the species from which it had been appropriated. One method could be through the application of a species royalty. They cited the American shopping site ShopStyle, which in a single month, April, 2019, offered more than nineteen thousand leopard-print products for sale, with an average price of four hundred and twenty-three dollars. If one per cent of the sale of each of those leopard-print items went to support leopard conservation, they wrote, that would result in an eight-million-dollar leopard fund.

“Debbie Harry, in 1989”

How might such a levy be instituted? Good Markides and her colleagues acknowledged that it was beyond their remit to devise an appropriate mechanism, but suggested that firm codes of practice, incentivizing, and even regulatory requirements might be applicable. One figure in the big-cat conservation world has already been experimenting with linking leopard print with real-life leopards. Thomas Kaplan, the chairman of the Electrum Group, a New York investment firm, is the founder of Panthera, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of big cats, which partners with fashion brands to promote wildlife. Two years ago, Panthera launched a campaign called Leopard Spotted, whereby wearers of leopard print are encouraged to promote awareness of the animal’s plight by adding a hashtag to their Instagram selfies, and to donate, via Panthera, to conservation efforts. “What we are trying to do is to encourage people to see beyond the spots,” Kaplan told me. “We’re not interested in discouraging people from using leopard print. To the contrary, what we want to do is make people understand that, while celebrating the leopard, they can also give back. If royalties were paid for any fashion statement like this, there would be more than enough money to save the leopard.” Six years ago, Panthera collaborated with Hermès on an exhibition to celebrate the work of Robert Dallet, an illustrator who designed iconic silk scarves for the company depicting big cats in the wild; one scarf, featuring a leopard in grassland, was launched, with partial proceeds going to Panthera. Kaplan hopes to recruit a number of fashion brands to institute a species royalty.

“Jacqueline Kennedy, in 1962”

A dozen years after Jackie Kennedy was photographed in her leopard coat, accessorized with a black pillbox hat and black elbow-length gloves, another iconic leopard outfit was in circulation: Diane von Furstenberg’s leopard-print wrap dress, which the designer was photographed wearing in 1974 at a film première, purring into Andy Warhol’s ear. When I asked von Furstenberg if she thought the big cats were due a cut, she acknowledged that animal royalties were an interesting idea. “But, you know, every element of nature has been used as a source of inspiration in fashion—flowers, bark, roses,” she said. “Leonardo da Vinci said that of all his accomplishments what he was proudest of was that he could read nature. Nature for me is everything.” Von Furstenberg still has a taste for leopard print, she told me: when we spoke, she was on an overseas trip for which she had packed a leopard-print velvet jacket and a leopard-print passport holder. In the decades after von Furstenberg wrapped herself and other women in her sleek, clingy faux-leopard dresses, Oleg Cassini came to regret the real leopard coat he’d made for Jackie Kennedy. “Animals sense when they’re about to be killed,” he once told an interviewer. “They have the imagination to fear.” Cassini’s conscience was troubled by his implication in the fur trade; for him, it seems, the link between Panthera pardus and a fashionable coat was indelible, and a source of shame. Cassini, who died in 2006, forswore fur, instead designing with and advocating for the use of fake fur as a substitute for the actual, bloody thing. The designer did what he could to make reparations. A species royalty, its proponents suggest, would enable all who appropriate the leopard’s guise, thinkingly or not, to repay their own debt to nature.”



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