Animal prints were a strong theme on the catwalks this summer. Alexander McQueen and Francesco Scognamiglio used them in graphic black and white on a coat and trouser suit respectively. Michael Kors did a calf-hair clutch bag and cowhide trousers, Jill Stewart a printed rabbit skin skirt and Giuseppe Zanotti trotted out pony-hair boots … and that’s even without the perennial ubiquitous leopardskin print, always to be seen on every high street. Year in, year out, from one decade to the next.
For when were animal prints not in vogue? Ever since Man (and woman) first ventured outside their caves with a freshly skinned bison covering their naughty bits, animal prints have been a hot trend. From skins being valued for their warmth, they evolved into status symbols for kings and the nobility – exotic furs imported from Africa were affordable only to the richest and most powerful members of society. Leopardskin is still worn as ceremonial dress by the highest-ranking men in African tribes. King Mswati III of Swaziland particularly favours loincloths made from the real McCoy. And on state occasions, British peers don ermine-trimmed robes, despite central heating having reached Westminster.
Many psychologists actually believe that fashion’s fascination with the look is due to the patterns being engrained in our DNA from those prehistoric times when nothing came between an animal skin and Man’s own.
The cult of Dionysus has much to answer for, too. The god of wine, revelry and debauchery is often shown riding a leopard and wearing a leopardskin. Myth has it that his followers wear the look in homage to him.
More recently, Hollywood and celebrities popularised animal prints, especially the leopardskin. In the 30s and 40s, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and Josephine Baker (who had a pet leopard named Chiquita) lent the style an elegant and sophisticated image. But in the 50s, screen sirens Bettie Page and Jayne Mansfield gave it a sexier, even a little vulgar, edge. Bonkbuster novelist Jackie Collins kept the trend going virtually single-handedly throughout the 80s. Today, no-one rocks leopardskin quite like Kate Moss. And she’s a paid-up follower of Dionysus all right.
Ocelot and tiger and zebra stripes are also fashion favourites, while snakeskin, crocodile and alligator – the genuine article and, more ethically, reproductions – are popular for bags and belts.
My animal print garments from the 80s are an enduring hit at the retro clothes fairs where I sell. At November’s Vintage Event at Balham Bowls Club and at Clapham’s Art + Cake in October, it was the leopard skin print shell tops, T-shirts and scarves that went as fast as a puma hitting the January sales. But there are still a few prize items left for sale, including this gorgeous, never-worn snakeskin print dress.
It was bought in the 80s from the British upmarket fashion chain Warehouse, and has never been worn. A size 12 (USA 8/9), it’s 39 inches long from the neckline to just below the knee. It’s made of a stretchy jersey fabric (100% polyamide) with a velvety finish and a black / white / beige snakeskin print. And it’s yours for just £19.99.
The silver-coloured metal chain belt with Navajo symbols on it pictured with the dress is also for sale separately at £7.99.
I accept payment by PayPal. If you’re interested, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.