In the dense thicket of my wardrobe, an event worthy of a David Attenborough narration is taking place. Between the green smart pants and the satin button-up, an oversized zebra-striped blazer hangs, aloof as though it were lapping at a watering hole in the savanna. Several hangers over, however, a predator lies in wait; the leopard-print fur coat, at first unassuming with its neutral tones, draws in my attention. Will I toss the blazer over my shoulders and opt for a classier look? Or will I instead grab the fur coat in a bid to create an outfit dripping with a put-together eclecticism?
I’m only going to the store. I pull the fur coat off the hanger, and just as a big cat routs a grazing zebra in the Serengeti, today is simply not the blazer’s day.
If you’re anything like me, your closet isn’t all too different from the savanna (although not nearly as barren). Dozens of patterned garments burst forth, battling one another to catch your eye and be worn out and about. A would-be ecosystem flourishes, bound to your hand and personal taste.
For almost all of human history, animal print has been an integral part of fashion, first out of necessity and then as a symbol of wealth and power. We’ve all become familiar with the pervasive image of early man as a hairy, heavy-browed brute sporting a club and leopard thong (stay tuned for my favorite Paleolithic-inspired looks). Over time, usage of animal print evolved just as humanity did. For instance, in Ancient Egypt, use of the leopard skin supposedly once worn by every Joe Caveman was largely restricted to Sem priests, tasked with the ever-important mortuary duties such as embalming and mummification. This trend continued well through Antiquity and the Middle Ages, where having the hide of a tiger in your solarium or an ermine-fringed cloak was meant to convey one thing — yes, I have money. Lots of it. Animal fur being expensive inevitably turned it into a status symbol; the more you had, the more powerful you must be. King John of France used as many as 366 individual pelts in one of his undoubtedly decadent coats; the fur trade is what nearly drove the entire economy of early North America as European aristocrats filled their insatiable appetite for luxury clothing. However, I digress; beaver and sable fur is entirely different from, say, tiger or zebra. The former suggests a more refined, elegant, and distinctly European manner of dress. On the other hand, it should be noted that on the continent of Africa, where so many of these exotic animal patterns have their origins, the latter never quite went out of style — and there’s a very good reason for that.
It seems a bit ironic that the patterns adorning Africa and Asia’s most recognizable animals were created through evolution with the intent of hiding and eluding predators, and now seem to serve to a species’ detriment, with humans now added into the equation. Despite the fact that you’d be incredibly hard-pressed to find a genuine leopard product in any respectable department store, there is still an illegal market for exotic animal pelts and poachers still threaten the existence of so many of these majestic creatures. Thanks to the accessibility of faux fur, however, these patterns can now be worn without worry of cost, both in the monetary and (mostly) environmental sense. The best part? They still retain the striking exoticism and exquisiteness they always had, a feature often inversely related to the aforementioned accessibility. The sumptuous clothing once only available to the highest echelons can now be bought by any fashion-conscious shopper looking to add some flair to their wardrobe.
As with anything, though, some patterns are better than others.
My personal favorite is leopard, arguably the most luxurious-looking of the patterns to be discussed in this article. Its soft golden-brown tones pair especially well with gold jewelry and accessories, and can be worn with virtually any color. The brownish-black spots also help to make an outfit more dynamic and visually-interesting. Something as simple as a red turtleneck can be taken from basic to beautiful with the addition of a printed coat, scarf, or even pants. Leopard has the unique ability to not only pop on its own, but to also draw attention to other parts of your outfit; whereas most people would assume leopard to be the great statement piece that overwhelms the rest of your look, one would be surprised at the abilities of the pattern to compliment and tie together your outfit as a whole. Think of leopard as the cherry on top, not the entire sundae.
My ideal leopard look: Off-white satin button-up paired with red foulard. Leopard-print fur coat. Black pants. White boots. Gold jewelry as needed.
Coming in a close second for my pattern of choice is zebra, with its stunning stripeage and capacity to make one truly stand out in a crowd. I can think of a few instances in which I’ve seen a person wear leopard on the street, but zebra seems to be much more elusive in that regard. When I imagine the pattern in my head, I’m taken to a dimly-lit restaurant with a year-long reservation list. Most of the decor is black, white, and silver. There’s a candle on the table. You have too many forks. The waiter doesn’t seem to respect you.
You should have worn zebra.
Despite its elegance, zebra is a bit of a safer bet — after all, it’s just black and white stripes. It’s a good place to start if you’re just getting into animal print, but it’s easy to wear it wrong. Because the contrast between the stripes is so striking, it doesn’t take much for your outfit to drown in it. One of the most important factors when putting together an outfit is balance, and it’s for this reason that zebra should be limited to above-the-waist (where most attention should be placed), unless you’re experienced enough to know how to balance a pair of zebra-striped pants. In my opinion, zebra is better suited for a night out, and it goes great with silver accents. When worn properly, it definitely has the ability to be the classiest pattern in your closet.
My ideal zebra look: White turtleneck paired with silver chain. Oversized zebra blazer draped over shoulders. Black pants. Silver boots. Silver jewelry.
Now we come to tiger, a pattern that I admittedly never wear for the simple fact that it is unbelievably overwhelming. The jagged black stripes on the rust-orange background can be difficult to pair properly and it never quite looks great, though that is, of course, personal preference. You’ll rarely see designers work with a fully-fledged tiger pattern, instead using it as a motif upon which they scale it down or apply unorthodox colors in an attempt to make it more palatable. If you do decide to wear tiger, I can only imagine it working well with neutral or warm tones. To me, tiger screams, “Am I doing this animal print thing right?”, to which I would reply, “No.”
My ideal tiger look: Button-up shirt featuring actual tigers as opposed to only the pattern. Navy pants. White high tops. One ring. Keep it simple, you’ve got tiger on.
To finish things off, we come to a more unique contender from an entirely different environment: the cow. I adore western-inspired fashion, and nothing evokes the southwest and Americana better than cowhide pattern. It’s much more humble and reserved than the previously-mentioned looks, and far more casual. The exact coloring can vary, with some designers gravitating for stark black and white (à la zebra), while others choose more natural-looking brown spots. In most cases, it’d be a bit odd sporting some cow spots for a dressier occasion, so I’d advise that you take some liberties and dress it down. Permission granted. Cow pairs extremely well with denim, another classic American contribution to fashion. If you really want to lean into western style, consider donning a bright-colored bandana or even a pair of boots — however, please skip the lasso.
My ideal cow look: Cowhide denim jacket. Blue or black jeans. White T-shirt. Red bandana tied around neck. Brown or black cowboy boots.
“…it should be noted that on the continent of Africa, where so many of these exotic animal patterns have their origins, the latter never quite went out of style — and there’s a very good reason for that.”
In summation, animal print has proved itself to be an enduring component of any wardrobe for nearly all of fashion history. It can add an exotic element to an outfit regardless of your environment, and can be incredibly useful in breaking up the monotony of flat colors and basic patterns. Nonetheless, one must exercise caution — the power that comes with animal print must not be abused. Too much, and a look can easily go from fabulous to terribly gauche. No one likes a try-hard, and wearing such patterns with reckless abandon can destroy an otherwise decent outfit. My recommendation is limiting animal print to one piece per look. You never see Caveman Joe wearing zebra-on-tiger.
Speaking of, where did I leave my leopard thong?