The Lookbook: Leopard Print

By CLARK LEWIS

COURTESY PHOTO

This week I am featuring one of my favorite coats. I have had it for a few years now, but I love wearing it every winter. The GUESS coat is all black on the outside with a faux fur lapel and glossy snake print sleeves. The inside of the coat is lined with leopard print. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t keep me very warm during the dead of winter, but it’s stylish and I like it so I wear it anyway. Despite being mostly black, this coat has a lot of textures and patterns that stand out. Faux fur, leopard and snake prints are common trends we see pop in fashion again and again, but it wasn’t until recently that I started to wonder why.

When I went abroad last spring in Cameroon, something my friends and I enjoyed doing was going to the markets and see the different ​pagnes​ we could buy. Pagnes are fabrics that are typically vibrant or intricate in design, but there’s more to them than just their aesthetics. I learned that many patterns have significant historical and cultural meanings. Learning this made me curious about the possible  historical or cultural significance behind the designs and patterns we have in the United States. So, looking at my black coat, I wanted to explore some of the history behind animal-inspired prints and features.

Leopard print, which is the bold feature hidden inside the coat, has a long history of being incorporated into fashion. Often associated with flashy, promiscuous and/or tacky personalities, leopard print has been a popular and recurring trend. When I was in Cameroon, we learned that people didn’t just wear these sacred prints for fashion, but because the animals and patterns themselves are sacred. While visiting a chefferie (village or kingdom) in Bangoulap, Cameroon, we learned the process by which kings and animals found each other and exchanged powers. Each king would find their own totem that would represent them in life, beginning with a sacred ceremony marking the transition from prince to king. These animals ranged from elephants and cheetahs to snakes and leopards. It was believed that the kings could transform into these animals when necessary and that the animals represented the powers that kings had. Therefore, to wear the hide of an animal was not only a sign of wealth and prestige, it was a sign of great power that only the nobles had. I remember sitting in the throne room with other Middlebury students surrounded by leopard print and leopard items everywhere, since that was the totem of Bapa’s king. Keeping the animal close signifies the animal’s importance to the person and the power it possesses.

So, how did it end up the inside lining of my coat? I find that prints, like many trends in fashion, travel. African cultures aren’t the only ones to associate animal features with nobles or spiritual figures. Greek, Egyptian and Chinese religions and mythologies have all historically used animals when depicting important figures. Fashion trends travel across time and place and change the more they move. 

So I am not surprised that what in one place and time of the world was considered sacred is in another simply a polyester material for the inside of my coat. Or the outside of my sleeves. Fashion borrows, steals and appropriates from itself all the time and I find that along the way many things lose their meaning. While animal prints in the United States have had a long life  as a fashion staple, the connotations we assign to them are interesting. The animal print that the Bangoulap community saw as a representation of their king, westerners see and think about the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Everytime I put on my coat, I think about what the animal prints on it mean stylistically here at Midd but also what they would have meant had I been wearing them back in Cameroon. One thing I learned from going abroad is that prints can be vibrant ways to express yourself and stand out, but they can also have tremendous significance and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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The Lookbook: Leopard Print