Autumn 2016 might just turn into the year of the cat. After being featured in the runway collection of designers such as Calvin Klein, Botega Venetta and Prada, leopard print prowled all over this season’s catwalks. Vogue magazine claimed it’s the “most powerful trend” of Fall 2016, but with the look coming back in style seemingly every other year, perhaps a more accurate description is that it’s the most powerful trend ever. This spotted spectacle has had way more than nine lives with experts proclaiming it over and reborn more times than…um…a leopard has spots. Call it couture, trashy, retro or modern and you won’t be wrong; just look Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Ann-Margret, Bettie Page, Audrey Hepburn, Eartha Kitt, Debbie Harry, Shania Twain and Rihanna — celebs with different personalities and attitudes who all have donned the fabric with memorable flair.
I adore the look and outfit myself in attire covered in the spots (not all at once of course — that would be in bad taste). My attraction to the fashion goes back as far as I can remember; I always felt the pattern was a feminine tradition on the Italian-American side of my Long Island-by-way-of-Brooklyn family. Not that growing up on the South Shore of Long Island exposed me to the heights of good taste, but in my little world the magical print was a symbol of sophistication and being well put together.
It was everywhere when I was a kid. My grandmother’s bathroom was literally wallpapered in it with coordinating black, gold and patterned towels hanging majestically on the rack, never to be touched by a wet hand (there were other towels for that). The den housed a daybed slipcovered in leopard while a large picture of a tiger ‘s face hung on the wall behind it. “We’re Leos,” my grandmother, whose August birthday fell a day before mine, would tell me as we sat upon the soft cover. “Leos are the best.”
At my family home, the black vinyl ’70s couch had two leopard throw pillows and a blanket with the motif hung over the back of a rocking chair, as if it were a mid-century mannequin modeling a fur coat. It’s the same covering you’ll see me atop, drooling and smiling in one of my earliest baby pictures. I was pretty much born into leopard.
It was the women who wore it that really imprinted the look in my brain. My earliest style icons were seventy-something cousins of my grandmother; Fran, Babe and Jean, aka “the girls” from Brooklyn who’d come visit in the ’80s and ’90s. Though modern times might call their nickname infantilizing, I always thought it referred to their ageless beauty and vivaciousness. To me, they always appeared as a trio, the Three Wise women all dolled up with dyed blonde and black helmet heads, red lips and nails, their sharp clothing occasionally topped off with a hat and always a matching purse. In my teen years, my mom’s friend Rose, another septuagenarian, had a matching cheetah coat and pillbox hat that sat atop her beauty-parlored hair, the walking definition of elegance. These ladies wore their leopard as royalty wore purple robes; they made me feel as if I got to meet silver screen movie stars first hand.
There’s an old 1950s black and white family photo of my 16-year-old mom, standing on Jones Beach in her animal print one piece looking knuckle-bitingly beautiful, like a young Elizabeth Taylor. Another teenaged picture of her shows her lounging in a cheetah print top and pedal pushers hugging a stuffed toy dog—– a quintessential image of the 1950s, where you can practically hear the Elvis records scratching on the player. Her face showed the happiness my whole family spoke of when referring to those days; the positivity, hope and simplicity of post-war suburban America, a joyful, carefree time this 80s Cold War, AIDS crisis and “Just Say No” kid longed for.
In my youth, I don’t recall my mom dousing herself in any head-to-toe spots, she added flair with the fabric — the pillows on the couch, a scarf. She believed in the leopard-print matching bra and panty set, instilling in me from a young age that socks and skivvies should match your outfit, and your undies were a great place to discreetly wave your leopard flag. As a college freshman, my first set — a Victoria’s Secret Second Skin Satin number, arrived in the mail, not with the mindset to entice but with the innocent intent to keep yourself coordinated and confident down to your bottom layers. “Pretty underwear makes you feel good!” Her approach to leopard was conservative; instead of brazenly flashy or wild, it demonstrated a quiet self-assuredness revealing you’re not afraid to stand out, be seen or have your voice be heard.
Though I appreciate the full arc of the design, Divine’s Pink Flamingo style trashiness, the rock ‘n’ roll rebelliousness, I’m a bit uptight about my own taste in the print. Contrary to some leopard lovers, I do meet a leopard print I don’t like — often. I’ve been known to preach about good and bad leopard print — a subtle difference that’s more of a gut reaction than an explanation of markings: bad leopard print dulls the mystique and uniqueness of the actual animal pattern that occurs in nature. Because that’s the whole point — those who are most attracted to it are vivid and bold; their own second skin should sparkle as they do. I wear leopard print not only because it’s my birthright as a Leo but as an homage to my bloodline, the stylish, quirky and outspoken women who never grew old.
Tara Cox is a Manhattan-based magazine editor and author of Airstream: The Silver RV. A roadside Americana enthusiast, she is also passionate about diners and finding the best black and white cookie in NYC. You can follow her on Twitter @ThisIsTaraCox and on Facebook.
Top photo: Carole Lombard
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