I have a pet peeve. About a year ago, I was scrolling through Pinterest and came across a Diane Von Furstenburg pin of a print used in her collection. The print resembled a clouded leopard, but when I clicked on the photo, it took me to a snow leopard photo, with natural history and conservation information about that species. I was so excited to see this connection to the animal itself, but was disappointed that the information was wrong.
All spotted prints are not the same! Being a fashionista, but also a scientist (especially a mammalogist), I actually care if people get the animal right. Even better, if they know something about the animal. Combining my love of fashion and animals, fellow blogger Emily Puckett and I are both writing a series of blogs focused on the animals behind the apparel you wear.
This first post is on the most classic print. So classic, some call it a neutral: leopard print. Leopards (Panthera pardus) and jaguars look very similar, and if you were to see one of these cats in the wild, you could immediately tell them apart be location. If you see a large, stocky, spotted cat in Central/South America, it’s a jaguar, but if you are in Africa or Asia, it’s a leopard. Fashion, however, has no geographic limitations and therefore you have to look closely at the spots to tell them apart. Leopard coats are tawny with black rosettes (spots). The insides of the rosettes are a darker shade of the coat, and closer to the legs and head the rosettes are filled in completely. There are some leopards that are melanastic, meaning they have high levels of melanin in their pigment from a mutation, creating the illusion of a completely black cat (“black panther”). This is not a different species, and they still have black rosettes albeit against a near-black coat, making it difficult to see the rosettes. If you look closely and have good light, you can make them out.
Despite their coats looking similar to, and often being confused with jaguars and cheetahs (to be covered in future posts), leopards are most closely related to lions, which obviously have no spots. Leopards are one of the five big cat species in the genus Panthera along with lions, tiger, jaguar, and snow leopard. These cats underwent an early, rapid radiation about ∼3-4 million years ago with the split of lions and leopards in the Pleistocene era, and split of jaguars from lion/leopards near the Plio-Pleistocene boundary. Note that cheetahs, Acinonyx jubatus, which also look similar to leopards in terms of their coat are not even in the genus as leopards meaning they are much more distantly related.
Leopards have the largest range of all of the big cat species, spanning across Africa and southern Asia. Although locally common in areas, as a species, they are declining (status is near threatened on the IUCN Red List). Leopards suffer from habitat loss due to human development, but unlike most big cats and even large mammals, can actually live alongside even pretty large human populations if there are enough hiding spots and prey. This close proximity to humans though brings leopards one of their largest threats, conflict. Leopards can predate upon livestock, and therefore are directly targeted by humans to prevent these losses. Some of the ways people kill leopards is through poisoning carcasses.
Despite all of the gorgeous faux prints designers create, leopards surprisingly are still targeted for skins. This is a serious a threat, as they are traded in central and West African countries and used in traditional rituals such as those in South Africa. The rise of leopard print was largely in response to a real leopard coat worn by First Lady Jackie Kennedy. When other women wanted to copy this exotic ensemble, leopard and other spotted cat populations plummeted. The initiation of organizations like the Endangered Species Act and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) help protect these animals from being killed and traded on such a large scale. And as Jackie O’s look was ultra chic despite the negative conservation and ethical connotations, it was a win-win for designers to turn to faux prints for fashion. The prints worn today are representations of the actual furs that people used to wear, and to continue this trend of faking it to help leopard populations, visit IFakeIt.org and snap a photo of yourself wearing leopard print with the hashtag #IFakeIt.
You really can wear leopard print with almost anything, which is why it is considered a neutral. I love pairing it with bright colors, especially red. If you are not sure, the best bets are blacks, tans, or browns that will match parts of the print. If you are not used to wearing prints, leopard can feel overwhelming. To get started with leopard, try using it in a small accessory, like a scarf or shoes. Even these small flashes of leopard will have maximum fashion impact.
Scientists typically aren’t thought of as being fashionistas, but as you will find from my future posts that fashion actually finds a lot of inspiration from nature, especially animals. If you wear it, why not know about the animal behind your print?