Animal prints and skins are widely believed to convey power to the wearer. Fabrics with patterns and colors imitating the skins of animals were made into fashionable dress as early as the eighteenth century, when elaborate silk designs emulating exotic furs intertwined with expensive laces to evoke a sense of luxury and wealth.
Characteristics associated with a particular animal, such as the fierceness of a tiger, are thought to be transferred to the wearer through animal-patterned clothing. Animal motifs are also widely regarded as erotic and thus tend to be utilized on clothing designed to attract others. For example, animal prints have a constant presence in overtly sexual lingerie. A person wearing an animal print makes a statement about confidence and expresses a desire to be noticed. These head-turning prints catch the viewer’s attention with their multicolored patterns and irregular designs. Their reputation ranges from classic and sophisticated in high fashion to cheap and trashy in popular fashion. Mainstream fashion articles have suggested that wearers limit animal prints to accents to avoid sending an overly suggestive message.
From tiger stripes to cheetah spots, the patterns of the world’s big cats have been constants in the fashion world. The rosette pattern of the leopard has been a favorite. Graceful and powerful hunters, they suggest “feminine” cunning and instinct. The movie Tarzan the Apeman was a huge success when it was released by MGM in 1932. The revealing, leopard-patterned clothing of stars Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, created a sensation for leopard and cheetah prints during the 1930s. Blouses, coats, and scarves were some of the popular items made in animal prints during that time. These items represented the excitement and adventure of the jungle and an independence of spirit especially unusual for depictions of women during that time.
The fashion designer Rudi Gernreich produced a collection of animal-patterned dresses with matching tights and underwear in 1968, documented in the movie Basic Black (1968) by the photographer William Claxton and the model Peggy Moffitt. Animal prints became very popular for dresses, leggings, and accessories in the 1970s and 1980s. Animal pelts and prints fit the free-spirited independence and heightened interest in world cultures in the 1970s. Animal motifs were perfectly suited to the combination of extravagance, bold patterns, and color in the 1980s. The fashion designers Dominico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have made animal prints their signature. These prints enhance the diva persona of the celebrities they are known for dressing.
Political questions concerning the use of real leather and animal fur have affected the wearing of animal prints. International law prohibits the trade in endangered species. By raising the awareness of the treatment of animals that are killed for the use of their skins, animal rights activists and organizations have promoted wearing clothing made of fabric printed with animal motifs rather than actual pelts.
Dolce, Domenico, and Stefano Gabbana. Dolce & Gabbana: Animal. Photography by Steven Meisel and Bruce Weber New York: Abbeville Press, Inc., 1998.
Felderer, Brigitte, et al. Rudi Gernreich: Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion. Edited by Gerald Zeigerman. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2001.