Such is the madness of life in the urban jungle that we have to go out to a restaurant with our neighbours in order to have a proper conversation with them. Last time we did so, the Woman Next Door was wearing a scarf with a leopard-spot pattern on it, and so was I. Our scarves were of different material, and the pattern was not identical, but the basic idea was the same. We had both added the scarf to lift the dark uniformity of our winter outfits and, we thought, make them our own. Far from it. A glance at the adjacent table revealed yet another leopard scarf, while across the room there was a dress in giraffe print and, grazing nearby, a zebra-striped handbag. Dinner in London was beginning to resemble a game drive in the Masai Mara.
The fashion industry loves animal prints and has been happily rotating them for decades—leopard one year, zebra the next, and so on. That was a great way to keep the consumers consuming, but after living through a few cycles I realised that if you held on to your animal print for long enough and didn’t flinch, it would come back into fashion again. Scarves were particularly good at this because their shape didn’t date as dresses or shoes can.
On the catwalk, leopard has always been the biggest of the big-cat prints (the word leopard tends to be used as a blanket term covering all creatures great and spotty – ocelot, cheetah, jaguar). Strolling down my local high street I spot it (ha) in Joseph, Zadig & Voltaire, Gerard Darel…and the Oxfam shop. Yes, someone had second thoughts about that long-sleeved dress covered in three-inch leopard spots, and with good reason. Large amounts of leopard demand something of the wearer, a certain look-at-me chutzpah. A friend says she doesn’t feel brave enough to wear clothes that suggest to the world she’s a wildcat in the bedroom. Because that’s the accepted subtext: leopard print is sexy. Shrinking violets are probably happier in florals, or something else from the vegetable rather than the animal kingdom.
Leopard print signals female empowerment and, a little further along the same spectrum, woman as predator. It can look brash and vulgar, with a strong whiff of the boudoir or brothel, and is used to the point of cliché on underwear. But it is freighted with other associations too. Fifties glamour, Sixties bohemia, Seventies free love, Eighties power-dressing—leopard print had a part to play in all of them. It’s a bit Tarzan and a bit rock’n’roll. Its versatility is the key to its longevity: what else can look slutty in synthetic in a red-light district and classy in silk at the neck of an ageing dowager? How it reads depends on how it is used, and in part that is about quantity. You don’t have to go as far as the man who had leopard spots tattooed over his entire body to overdo it. The scarf is a cautious toe in the water.
It is telling that the fascination with fabrics that mimic animal pelts endures in an era when killing animals themselves for sartorial purposes is completely hors de question, unless you’re European royalty. Animal prints are a quotation, not just from the animal itself but from the primitive days when we wore animal skins, and—more recently—when wearing real fur was considered glamorous. Perhaps we have an atavistic urge to wear animals, a nostalgia for the days when we were hunters and they signified our dominance over nature, and hence our survival.
Today fashion is so polyglot that all species of animal print—including the odd reptile one, too—are in the shops most of the time. They may be realistic, straight out of National Geographic, or stylised, abstracted until they morph into generic tribal print. They can be monochrome or on, say, an electric-blue background. Whatever the form, they are rarely what you’d call quiet. Yet in recent months I have read several times that "leopard print is the new neutral" and "animal prints are the new wardrobe staple". Even by fashion-speak standards that’s a weird claim: how can something so busily striped, spotted or reticulated be neutral or basic? But perhaps there’s some truth in it: animal print—like denim—is now so ubiquitous that it doesn’t roar its messages as it once did.
The leopard scarf in particular is an epidemic, infecting accessories and clothes rails, airport lounges and street markets. Like the ruffs worn at the neck in 16th-century Europe, it has become a tribal badge, and just as ruffs were socio-economic indicators—they could be small and simple, or ornate and a foot wide—so the animal-print scarf is available in 100% polyester, 100% cashmere and everything in between. What nature designed to camouflage wild creatures in the dappled light of the African bush, we have tamed to blend in today. The cat that walked by himself has joined the herd.