Should Leopards Be Paid for Their Spots?

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 Modes, ou 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.)

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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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.”

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