By Claire Watson
A young girl stands in the snow-covered wilderness of Eastern Poland. Adorned in her iconic leopard print coat, the partisan raises her rifle with the same grace and ferocity as the big cat bares its teeth.
When she was only 16 years old, Faye Schulman’s family was murdered by Nazi soldiers. Schulman, who passed away this year at the age of 101, was a fighter and a photographer. “There was a time when I was wearing the leopard coat and my feet were tied with rags.” She states. Her coat carried her through the two years she spent ambushing Nazi soldiers and patching up her fellow partisans. “It was this coat that kept me warm. It was so light, so warm and so strong.” This wild pattern is for fighters; the big cats and the revolutionists. This print is loud, evoking the sound of the snarling cat. While the dark rosettes work to conceal the hunter, anyone who dons this fierce print is sure to stand out and proud with all the might of the revered leopard.
But in the world of high fashion, leopard print is seen as neutral. The print is seen as a signifier of one’s “trashy” sexual status. Even Christian Dior, the designer who popularized the pattern in 1947 with his “Jungle” dress says: “If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.” Flashy prints mark the wearer’s individualism. There’s the idea that no two leopard’s spots are the same. These rosettes acknowledge the wearer’s power, the wearer’s want and ability to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, uniqueness does not bode well for fast fashion. Mass-produced clothing relies on consumers to be wearing similar outfits and having similar tastes.
As of now, the fashion industry is experiencing a problem of trends occurring and fading too fast for buyers to keep up with. By 2050, landfills will hold 150 million tonnes of clothing waste. And so, to ensure that people are sticking to the trends, unique and flashy patterns like the leopard print are demoted to neutral. Consistently these types of patterns are discarded as being tacky, only to become trendy again some years later. Often, camp coincides with tacky, which Jo Weldon describes in her book Fierce: the History of Leopard Print as “the lack of cultivation or the resistance to taste, and more often than not refers to tastes that are not suitably conservative.”
Tight trims, clean colours, and sleek designs, that is what is portrayed as good fashion. Though the industry is changing, celebrities on red carpets portray the fashion ideals of the modern world. Campy fashion was pioneered by working-class, black, LGBTQ+ people, who recognised the power in flamboyant fashion. Undoubtedly flashy, gaudy prints are powerful, and as people attempt to separate themselves from fast fashion, wearing statement pieces like the leopard print becomes an act of rebellion. With the rise of vintage fashion and thrifting culture, millennials and gen z are bringing back the zany prints as they were in their prime.
The fashion industry attempts to lure its consumers back in by turning leopard, and other prints, into neutrals, thus stripping them of their power. But, as Weldon goes on to state, “[Tacky] is often where the imagination runs free, where the heart is, where the soul is, and where the fun is.”
Activist Gina Martin explained in a TikTok video how when she was in parliament fighting to change the law on upskirting, she wore plain black clothes in order to look like a politician, “I realised I was trying to replicate the archetypal power I saw around me.” She started attending her meetings in Parliament in clothes that were “colourful, and joyful, and feminine.” She explains that power does not have a certain look, and rather comes in all shapes, colours, and forms.
Just as Schulman felt empowered by her leopard print coat, and Martin by her colourful clothes, we too can feel powerful in what we wear. Clothes are tools we can use to show the world our inner selves. They are statements. Whether we are on the frontlines, in parliament, or just popping down to Lidl, clothes can give us that drive to feel, and do, the best we can.