December 22, 2018

Editors may have declared animal print back ‘in’ at the culmination of this year’s Autumn/Winter Fashion week (thanks to a bevy of feline-forward frocks sent down the runway by designers ranging from Givenchy to Calvin Klein), but that begs the questions: did animal print every really go out?

We’d argue no. In fact, animals prints have been trending for as long as there have been animals to admire. From the beginning of civilization, animals’ coats have been a source of fascination for humans; equal parts dangerous, beautiful, and elusive. To those who worship it, animal print connotes a sense of power—it hints at an untamed ferocity best left undiscovered. So how did animal print go from primal origins to its luxe, modern day design connotations? Ahead, we explore how animal print’s desirability has shifted from one of survival to one of admiration and aesthetic, including how fashion and interior designers alike have harnessed it into one of design’s most stalwart prints.

animal print hollywood regency leopard chairs dining room yellow wood
Design by Melissa Rufty / Photo by Kerri McCaffety

Primal Beginnings: Ancient Times

In the beginning, animal print’s allure was rooted purely in survival. Animals, including cats, wolves, and small game were hunted for food. Their hides, a byproduct of the hunt, were then used for clothing. As time evolved, more decorative animal skins, such as those from leopards and tigers became a status symbol. The animal as a trophy, in fact, dates back to ancient times. Ancient cultures of China, Greece, and Rome all revered animal skins as a symbol of affluence.

Representations of animal hides also appear throughout mythology. The Egyptian goddess of wisdom, Seshat, was often depicted wearing a cheetah hide. Fur was otherwise reserved for Egyptian high priests. An ocean away, Greek hero Heracles slayed the Nemean lion and wore its fur as a sign of his power.

As civilizations advanced, animal furs continued to exemplify wealth and power. In the 14th Century, European laws were developed which dictated which social classes were permitted to wear certain types of furs. To show off their bestowments, European royalty  posed for portraits wearing their most elaborate furs. Revered pieces at the time included cloaks and stoles made of mink, sable, or chinchilla.

animal print tiger hollywood regency living room white sofa glass table ottoman
Design by Melissa Rufty / Photo by Francesco Lagnese

Over the centuries, the fur trade was capitalized and became an incredibly lucrative business. With fur operations based out of major cities like New York, Montreal, and St. Petersburg, fur also became more accessible to the general population. Beyond fashion, animalia reached an all-time fever pitch in the Victorian era when taxidermy became a cultural fascination. Animal hides were desired not just to wear, but as decor and a source of entertainment.

Origins of Chic: Art Noveau & Art Deco

Our modern relationship with animal prints was firmly established in the early twentieth century.  As technology and travel advanced, so did an awareness for fashion trends and globally influenced style.

The Art Nouveau movement in particular boosted animal print’s allure in the early 20th Century. Founded in France and largely disseminated to the rest of the world via the L’exposition Universelle in Paris 1900, Art Noveau style dismissed the classical art of the 19th Century and celebrated natural forms and figures. Most notably for animal print, Art Noveau popularized stylized renderings of animals and animal-inspired motifs.

The Art Deco movement, which followed on the heels of the Art Noveau movement, continued to celebrate animal motifs and prints while elevating them to a more opulent level. Draperies and screens, for instance, often featured animal prints or figures. It was also during this time that designers like Aldo Tura began to integrate animal hides into their work. Tura, for instance, was known for surfacing his bar carts, credenzas, and other small decorative accents in dyed and lacquered goat skin. The result was a rich look that could only be achieved by an animal print.

animal print hollywood regency tiger chesterfield sofa living room dining room kitchen
Design by Kati Curtis / Photo by Eric Laignel

Ready for its Close-up: Animal Print in Film & Fashion

Simultaneous to the Art Deco era, the film industry was blossoming and quickly captivated the world. Almost from the get-go, animal print began popping up on film sets, which would prove to be a keystone towards popularizing the material with the masses. Animal print’s bold look also appealed to the movie starlets of the era, like Jean Harlow, who took to wearing fur coats fashioned out of animal furs. Especially favored were those fashioned from leopard or cheetah. As the 1950s encroached, fur remained among society’s most prominent outward indicators of money, power, and decadence.

Post WWII, fashion designers began to harness the stylistic power of animal prints. Leopard, cheetah, and zebra all gained a newfound appreciation as designers began applying them beyond the almighty fur coat. The iconic pin up style popularized by Betty Page in the 1940s embraced big cat prints in a sartorial way, meant to convey sultriness and beguilingly femininity. Later decades saw Eartha Kitt performing in head to toe cheetah print, and Jackie O. donning her infamous Oleg Cassini leopard jacket. As animal prints continued to gain traction, more pedestrian examples emerged: Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dresses; Mrs. Robinson’s fur stole in The Graduate; Edie Sedgwick’s pillbox hat. Each helped solidify animal print’s transition from an unattainable symbol of the elite to a fun and frisky print that fashionable women everywhere could embrace in their wardrobe.

Decorator’s Choice: Animal Print’s Lasting Appeal

Congruent with the introduction of film was the introduction of the interior designer. Right out of the gate, interior designers embraced animal print as a starring fabric. Elsie de Wolfe (who is largely considered the country’s first interior designer, having penned the early interior design bible The House in Good Taste in 1913), routinely used animal print in her projects. When covering pillows in real fur proved too costly, de Wolfe famously commissioned custom animal print fabrics to fill with feathers.

animal print cheetah chair upholstery textured carpet living room yellow sofa
Photo courtesy of Alessandra Branca

Still, animal print maintained a low-billing role until the mid 20th Century. Animal print earning prestige with the mass market fashion set; however, also turned out to be a gain for interior design. To make mass fashion manufacturing possible, animal prints were printed on textiles. Interior designers quickly snatched up these fabrics for their own projects, using them to upholster bigger pieces such as chairs and fashion draperies. As consumer confidence grew, designers began making bolder statements with animal print. Interior tastemaker Madeleine Castaing, for instance, famously carpeted her country home in wall to wall leopard carpet. Beset with a tete a tete-style bench upholstered in a bold Robin’s Egg blue and emerald green chaises, Castaing’s home has since become a archetypal example of classic Hollywood Regency style.

An Iconic Neutral?

Nearly half a century after its explosion as a cultural and design icon, animal print has confirmed unwavering staying power. Season after season, fashion designers send animal patterns parading down the runway while interior designers others fashion them into bold, fearless statements for the home. Interior designers Martyn Lawrence-Bullard, Ken Fulk, and Miles Redd have all pledged allegiance to the transformative powers of animal print. Industry makers like Schumacher and Stark have also found success in manufacturing wallpaper and rugs in animal-inspired prints. With its seemingly endless array of options, you’d be hard-pressed to find a designer who hasn’t appointed animal print a beige-grade neutral.

From foes to faux, our obsession with animal print is nothing if not fierce. With the ability to skew wild and edgy or sophisticated and regal, animal print has more transformative power than virtually any other pattern. Will designers ever tire of it? Maybe when cats fly.

Lead image design by Kati Curtis / Photo by Eric Laignel