We caught up with the legendary Headmistress of the New York School of burlesque and author of The Burlesque Handbook, Jo Weldon, to talk about her love of leopards and latest book, ‘Fierce: the History of Leopard Print‘.
In The History of Leopard Print you talk about leopard being synonymous with power, fierceness, danger and the relationship between a predator and its prey. Do you think people who wear leopard are drawn to it for these reasons?
Leopards are beautiful, powerful, warm blooded, nocturnal creatures, and the print reflects our admiration for and identification with them. People are emulating their feline grace and power when they wear the print, and celebrating the best of nature. So many folks who’ve attended my lectures and readings have told me amazing stories about how they feel when they wear it, but I think my favorite story came from a woman who works with bullied children. She said that they can become withdrawn, so the organisers dress the kids in leopard print and have them roar, and the kids love it. It’s actually therapeutic!
I’m a true and lifelong aficionado who wears leopard print regularly! When I wear it I feel ready for anything. I find it both comforting and energising. I wear lots of vintage. And it’s so much fun because I live in NYC where I’m constantly in crowds, and I get so many friendly comments when I wear it. I don’t dress for other people, but I love when they’re entertained by what I wear – it’s fun to give them a little unexpected pleasure. I also love to see another woman in a leopard coat on the subway and share a little secret smile while we admire each others’ style.
How has our appreciation of leopard evolved over the years, as cultural attitudes have shifted and trends have come and gone?
Before the 20th century, only extremely wealthy and powerful people, or entertainers, wore leopard fur or print – or had easy access to fashion in general. Not only that, but clothing was stitched by hand before the invention of the modern sewing machine in the 1840s, so it was expensive, and people without big money didn’t own many garments or have as much opportunity to wear something just for fun. Once the garment industry was able to produce more affordable clothing for a wider audience, more people could experiment and enjoy novelty clothing. Leopard print signifies that freedom of choice!
It was popular with flappers and fashion lovers in the 1920s-1940s. It was introduced on bikinis and lingerie in the 1950s and became associated with glamorous sexiness and leisure time. In the 1960s, the fur represented wealth while the print represented youth and modernity. By the 1970s, once the fur was illegal, some considered the print tacky, but top designers used it anyway and it managed to stay haute – it was popular on high fashion runways and was seen regularly in exclusive places like Studio 54.
And of course in the 1980s, it was blasted everywhere, all over the malls. I think the 1990s are when it began to assume the character it has now, where all the meanings it has had over time are still present depending on who wears it, where, and how, representing everything from sophistication and elegance to decadence and raunch.
You’ve been researching leopard print for over five years and presented your first illustrated lecture on the topic at New York City’s Wild Project in 2015. Which images do you think best document the history of leopard print?
I came across some images of women in leopard print or fur that really struck me, like the 19th century sword fighter Jaguarina, Wilma K Russey who was the first female taxi driver, and Faye Schulman who was a partisan fighter against the Nazis during WWII. So I have a personal iconography that’s a bit different than the general public’s, and I was excited to introduce these under-celebrated women to readers in my book.
I’m always struck by icons such as Josephine Baker in the 1920s walking her cheetah, Ann-Margret, Mrs. Robinson and Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s, Debbie Harry and Grace Jones in the 1970s, Naomi Campbell and Fran Drescher in the 1990s, plus many of these women still wearing the print in the new millennium. These days I’m really loving Helen Mirren, Janet Mock, Giovanna Battaglia, and Ashley Graham in leopard print, among others. If I’ve left out anyone you love, believe me, I’m probably a fan! And since I’m a burlesque performer I’m constantly surrounded by glamorous people of every gender in leopard print.
Why do you think the appeal of leopard is so enduring?
I think it remains so timelessly addictive because it has its origin in nature. The leopard is the original influencer! Everyone can appreciate the wild cats – that’s why the print is so popular with children, too, because kids love animals. The admiration for wild spotted cats seems to be universal wherever they’re known. In the Americas, where jaguars and ocelots are native, they were admired long before any influence from any other continent – it’s just universal. They’re such incredible animals.
Perhaps on some primal level we know what a good example leopards are for survival and strength. There are leopards thriving in every environment from the snowy Himalayas to the hottest veldt. They thrive in every element – they can swim for fish and they can sleep in trees. Plus, leopards are single mothers who raise their litters on their own, and we all know how strong and independent single mothers are. There’s just everything to love about a leopard. I’m positive leopard print will be a perennial favorite. It may occasionally be more or less on trend, but it always has its devoted fans. It never loses its bite!
What’s the most interesting thing you learned about leopard when researching this book?
I loved learning about 18th century high fashion and animal prints, especially on the dandy European men referred to as “macaronis,” who were known for their wild and influential style. So when the song says “Stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” it was making fun of Yankees thinking they could be as sophisticated as Europeans. Of course the revolutionaries didn’t mind being made fun of and co-opted the song as their own anthem!
Finding the print rather than the fur being so popular in another era was very exciting, because for most of the history I found fur. I respect that those were different times, before it was illegal, but now that the animals are endangered, I don’t want to see people wearing their fur – I honour its history but I don’t want to endorse it.
From reading your book it’s clear that leopard has been widely adopted by men and women since the earliest days of human history. What would it have meant to wear leopard print in those earlier periods of civilisation?
Leopard and jaguar skins were originally favoured by male warriors and royalty. Goddesses and priestesses, like Chinese Goddess Xi Wangmu (1500 BCE) and Egyptian Priestess Nefertiabet (2590-2565), were likely to be associated with big cats. Many of the longest-enduring spiritual practices make some connection between nature and divinity, and that may very well be something we express in our clothing.
While I was writing, I thought a lot about John Muir’s observation that “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” I loved learning that every little thing we use or do has a universe of history behind it.
When did you first fall in love with leopard?
I’ve been in love with leopard print since I was a little girl. In the 1960s I loved Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, surrounded by leopard print. In the 1970s I associated it with rock ‘n’ roll because of all the glam rock stars who wore it – everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Marc Bolan to David Bowie. In 1979 I borrowed my mum’s elegant leopard chiffon shirt to go to a Ramones concert, punked it up by wearing it with tight pants and rocker-chic hair, and never gave it back! I still wear it when I present my leopard lectures.
How do you strike a balance between looking elegant and looking tacky in leopard?
I have roots in punk rock, burlesque, and the drag community, so I’m not worried about overdoing things! I love an outrageous all-wild look. I’m loving the leopard-on-leopard trend I see on the runways. For people who want to keep their fierceness under control, though, a single garment such as a top or pants, especially when worn with black or red, will do it. If even that’s too much, accessories are the way to go. An elegant leopard clutch or a sharp pair of flats can take anyone’s look up a notch.
What’s the difference between leopard and other wild cat prints, such as jaguar and cheetah?
There is a true leopard print, the most common having open rosettes with darker gold inside. Snow leopard is shaggier and grey-toned. Jaguar print is bigger, more square, and has rosettes with spots inside, while ocelot has elongated rosettes. Cheetah print has solid spots. Of course there are a lot more cat patterns than that, and some are just pure fantasy.
I’d say “leopard print” is a vernacular term that describes all the prints people think are leopard print. I decided early on in my research to accept all wild cat prints under that umbrella. It’s fun to be able to differentiate, and once you know the differences you can’t unsee them.
In the book you mention that ‘leopard print’ isn’t in the dictionary yet. Why do you feel it deserves a spot?
The phrase is so prominent in our culture and so loaded with interpretations, and people have such strong reactions to it. Clearly it’s a unique element of our vocabularies as well as our wardrobes.
I read a great interview with Derek Joubert, who’s a conservationist working to preserve endangered leopards in their natural habitats. He said that the print used to remind him of the damage done to leopard populations by humans, but over time he learned to see it as a tribute to them, something that helps people remember to value nature — he says it celebrates the pattern’s beauty. I hope that everyone who loves leopard print gets inspired to think about protecting animals and their habitats. There’s no fashion without them!
‘Fierce: the History of Leopard Print‘ by Jo Weldon is published by Harper Design.