Why I Love Wearing Leopard Print So Freaking Much, Despite The Stigma

ellen ricks in leopard print jacket
PHOTO: VOCALLY

In college, my girlfriends and I established a bimonthly ritual of having dinner together then hitting local bars when we all became of age. On one such occasion, we were sitting at a long table in the back of “Fields” — our affectionate nickname for the “classiest” bar in town — when my best friend Kat nudged me and half-shouted above the buzz of voices and music, "That guy is checking you out!"

Startled, I nearly dropped my Malibu Bay Breeze. “Who, me?

Kat nodded, pointing to a cute guy a few tables over who was wearing a baseball tee and holding a craft beer.

“He’s not checking me out,” I told her — because no one checks me out. I’m like an unread library book.

After a bit of debate amongst our table, my friends came to the verdict that yes, he was checking me out, and yes, I should totally go over there and talk to him.

“I dare you walk up to him and tell him you like his baseball shirt,” Kat challenged me, throwing in an offer for a free drink if I did so.

Never being one to turn down a dare (or a free drink), I immediately accepted. Since I was wearing my favorite curve-hugging, leopard-print dress that night, I was both looking and feeling my best — a rare occurrence for me, especially when it came to the latter.

I strutted over to him and told him with as much allure as I could muster, “I like your baseball shirt."

“Thanks, Leopard Print," he responded.

At that point, I had run out of material — he was really cute, OK? — and promptly walked all the way back around to my table where I was greeted with cheering, giggling, and a drink. I reenacted the whole encounter for my friends, who responded with roaring laughter when I got to the climactic “thanks, Leopard Print” part. 

“Oh, so that’s why he was looking at you!” Kat told me. “Everyone knows that leopard print is the ‘down to fuck' print."

I was so surprised by her statement at that moment that I would have spat out my drink if I hadn't won it so valiantly. Down to fuck? No, leopard print is a classic, timeless pattern worn by celebrities, first ladies, and people in high fashion industry.

I decided to test Kat's theory by texting all the men I knew right then and there, asking each of what came to mind when they thought of leopard print. Much to Kat’s glee (and my cringe), they all said the same thing: “Down to fuck." Ugh.

Well, I have to admit: It is a wild print.

Courtesy Ellen Ricks

I've had a love affair with the pattern that's occasionally bordered on obsession ever since childhood. The first item of clothing I ever remember picking out for myself was this bizarre, leopard-print and rhinestone combination sweater I low-key wish I still had. Since then, I can’t think of one category of clothing I own that doesn’t contain the recognizable pattern in some form. Cardigans, boots, tops, bras, scarves, bathrobes, you name it — I have it in leopard. The current crown jewel of my wardrobe is a faux fur leopard-print coat that I bought for $7 at a thrift shop. (Yes, I feel fancy as heck when I’m wearing it.) 

Leopard print is honestly the new black: It goes with everything, and its natural, brown and black pattern looks good on everyone. However, I know that not everyone is on the leopard print train with me. I’ve had my suitemates honest to goodness growl when I've stepped out in a leopard print outfit. I’ve been playfully teased and joked about. I even had a high school Spanish teacher tell me she always thought the pattern was a touch tacky.

Treasured versus tawdry; chic versus cheap. What fuels such heated debates about leopard print? The answers likely lie within the history of the pattern of itself, which, much like people's opinions of the print, can be described as pretty extreme. 

Courtesy Ellen Ricks

Racked points out that Leopard first hit the fashion scene in 1947, when fashion designer Christian Dior included the pattern in his debut collection. What made his pieces rather revolutionary was that Dior did not use actual leopard fur— which you should NEVER do, in my humble opinion — or faux fur, both of which were common at the time. Instead, he used it as a print on regular fabrics — a move that would have been quite bold only a few decades earlier due to the expense of such made-to-order clothing and the lack of technology to mass-produce it prior to the 1930s.

The pattern really took off in the 1950s when Vanity Fair, an American lingerie brand, started selling leopard-print underwear, which resulted in the pattern's appearance in mass-produced lingerie and swimwear collections for the general public, Racked notes. (That's likely what sparked leopard print's relationship with notions of cheapness and sexuality.)

During the 1960s, leopard print became synonymous with class and style when celebrities like Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Eartha Kitt, and First Lady Jackie Kennedy began wearing it publicly. That all changed less than a decade later, when leopard print was suddenly "out." 

Why the sudden change in opinion? Though styles and patterns have naturally gone in and out of style, in this case the swift shift was deeper than that. It's much like Miranda Priestly's explanation of a trend's evolution in that scene fromThe Devil Wears Prada: how it emerges among great designers and icons, then trickles down to the middle class and eventually into "some tragic Casual Corner." Essentially, leopard print became a pattern only worn by those who were low-class and/or sleazy.

Maybe the reason leopard print is so often associated with trashiness is because we often (problematically) associate unabashed sexuality with trashiness. 

Leopard print has gotten a bit of a PR makeover in recent years, fortunately, coming back in full force on all sorts of pieces from clutches to bodysuits. The pattern was a favorite of Michelle Obama when she was first lady, and the wardrobe of Pretty Little Liars' Aria Montgomery was filled with all sorts of leopard-print attire. Still, the pattern's relationship with sexuality remains. Why is that?

It might just be because of leopards themselves. Sleek, powerful feline predators, these big cats walk with a slinky prowl, giving off an aura of elegance and grace while being capable of killing you at a moment's notice. They're inherently independent creatures and opportunistic hunters that are highly adaptable. And there something inherently indulgent and alluring about something that is forever wild; something that cannot be tamed. Maybe the reason leopard print is so often associated with trashiness is because we often (problematically) associate unabashed sexuality with trashiness. 

I, for one, love wearing leopard print because of its ability to instantly boost my confidence as soon as I slip it on. I wear it like a second skin, like battle armor that makes me assertive enough to conquer a day, whether I'm spending leading a presentation, pursuing a new opportunity, or just trying to win over a cute guy at a bar. I love it because it gives me a sense of agency over my own body. I love it because I'm not afraid to embrace my body and its sensuality. I love it because it makes me, me.

Let a little leopard print into your life — you never know what'll happen once you cross over into the "wild side."

Note: No leopards were hurt in the making of the article.

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