Josephine Baker was a big part of the early glamour of leopard print.
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Josephine Baker was a big part of the early glamour of leopard print.

This is why we're so aroused by leopard print

"I copied the dress of an animal because I love to copy God," said Roberto Cavalli, the Italian fashion designer. "God is the most fantastic designer." He was talking about the leopard.

Jo Weldon agrees, and has written an homage to those indelible spots. The author of “Fierce: The History of Leopard Print,” Weldon said the pattern has been getting our attention for at least a century.

“There are a lot of animals in the jungle,” she said. But “leopard has a special place in our hearts. I identified with it as a kid because I was a Leo. I was born in the year of the tiger and growing up in Colorado we would sometimes see mountain lions.”

Bill Radke: So you must have seen leopard print clothing on celebrities when you were growing up. What did that say about them and little cat Jo?

“It said fun. It said luxury. It said playfulness. It said decadence. And something I didn’t really identify with at the time but sophistication and eroticism.”

Bill Radke: Why do we get excited by leopard print?

“I believe on a primal level, we identify with these cats and we see their power, grace and beauty,” Weldon said.

“We know they’re apex predators which makes them inspiring in the sense of having status. And throughout history they’ve been identified as representative of power, status, achievement, luxury, decadence.”

Bill Radke: It’s almost a physical reaction we have to it.

On a lot of people, their pupils dilate when they see it and it’s the same kind of dilation that you see in both arousal and fear,” Weldon said.

“Scientists have called it the ‘misattribution of arousal’ when you see something you’re afraid of and you have the same physical sensations and you associate it with arousal or excitement and not just fear.”

Bill Radke: In your book, “Fierce: The History of Leopard Print,” you suggest we associate leopard print with trophy wives, older seductresses. How do we get from warm blooded and nocturnal to Mrs. Robinson?

“The trophy wife was because the coats were so incredibly expensive, and at that time most women didn’t have that much access to their own money,” Weldon said.

“To buy one for yourself was extraordinary, and to get one as a gift was a sign of being very appreciated. You would see it on famous actresses who were known for their sex appeal and glamor like Nancy Kwan, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eartha Kitt.

“When Jackie Kennedy showed up in it, it really hammered home that idea of achievement and status. But it very quickly went as we became disillusioned in the 60s as a sign of overindulgence. The coats and the wealth became associated with consumerism but it was subverted by a lot of designers into playful patterns.”

Bill Radke: Where are we at with leopard print in the 21st century?

“Almost anybody can wear it anyway they want.”

For more photos of Josephine Baker, including the one of her in a leopard print suit while a male assistant paints her toenails, click here (and warning: it's a little NSFW).

Produced for the web by Katherine Banwell.