We keep hearing that it's a "new classic," that it's "back," that everyone should be wearing leopard! It's like there's a powerful leopard-print lobby at work trying to convince us that it's not ridiculous. But it never really works.
In their seminal work The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, Jane and Michael Stern describe leopard skin as "a caricature of glamour." And it is: at best ironic, leopard-skin still looks aggressively crummy 99.9% of the time. It was not always thus: leopard first became chic when avant-garde designer Elsa Schiaparelli used the exotic pelt in '38. By the 50's, it was synonymous with lounge-singer louche, and by the time Liberace got done with it, it bore the stamp of high camp, too. No one thought you were rich or classy or had gone on safari when your wore leopard or cheetah-print; just that you were trying to be Sexy.
For a tacky moment, Google-image Jane Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay, sucking in their midriffs, sporting bikinis by Frederick's of Hollywood. For a theatrical thrill, remember Gloria Swanson in her leopard-trimmed, Edith Head-designed cabana couture in Sunset Boulevard, and then remember Biba in the '70s. For sadness, weep over Diane Arbus' "Lady Bartender"' in her nifty vest. Leopard-print garments are so dripping with 20th-century resonance and nostalgic pastiche that they are much too much for the average broad to handle.
There's also the fact that it looks vaguely ridiculous. I am not much of a trend-slave, but over the summer I succumbed to the charms of a vampy little number bedecked with leopard-spots. In gray canvas, with a classic wiggle shape, I uneasily decided it was "ironic." The dress lay fallow in my closet for months, a constant reproach. Then a couple of weeks ago, I found myself bound for a wedding with not much to wear. I reached for the wiggle dress.
Now, we don't have a full-length mirror, which is a persistent problem that never seems quite acute enough to actually suggest a remedy. And so it wasn't until I reached the reception and caught a glimpse of the blowsy Miss Adelaide in cheetah in the mirror that I realized the full extent of the problem. I promptly borrowed my boyfriend's jacket; I was attracting glances, and not because I was so "ironic" or "on-trend" or "referencing Americana." Rather, because I looked like I was about to marry Humbert-Humbert and get hit by a car. Leopard print is still short-hand, at the end of the day, for what my grandmother would have called "cheap" — no matter if Dolce or Frederick's of Hollywood.
Which Trends Fail? [Slate]