Monday, July 15, 2013

Modern Print Monday: Elsie de Wolfe

A fake leopard print

Elsie de Wolfe
About 1920

The origins of false leopard prints, like zebra prints, are impossible to pinpoint, but we can credit the designer who popularized them. The design history consensus is that Elsie de Wolfe, interior designer in the early 20th century, made the idea of imitation leopard prints an avant-garde necessity. 

De Wolfe's Villa Trianon has leopard pillows in a romantic interior.

De Wolfe gets a lot of credit for many ideas. She is sometimes called the first interior designer, but that's probably a name she gave herself. Before she was a designer she was an actress and she knew something about publicity. In the 1920s she began tossing fur-covered pillows and footstools into her interiors, but when actual furs proved expensive she commissioned printed copies.

Ava Gardner in a leopard print bathing suit, 
about 1950.

Leopard prints---wild cat prints---came to symbolize a certain animal-like sexuality

Which is why they serve the uses of irony so well.
Did Elsie de Wolfe invent them?

Here's Welsh patchwork from 1830 with a faux-leopard print in the corners.
See the whole piece at the Victoria and Albert Museum:

And click here and scroll down to see a page from an English sample book, about 1775, in the collection of the American Textile History Museum:

Gotta Have It!
An ad from Sears.


  1. Wow! Leopard prints dating to 1775? Just goes to show, "everything old is new again."

  2. How sweet of you to think of the leopard print Barbie bag as ironic! I'm sure Barbie herself doesn't consider it so. Your perspective will help those of us who have to live with that stuff because we have children or grandchildren who are girls age 2 to 10 in the house.

  3. I find pink leopard skin prints very ironic. We can always put a positive spin on bad design.

  4. Hi there! I represent a norwegian clothin company. I really like the picture of the fake cheetaprint you posted. Did you make it? And if you did, could we use it on a t-shirt desig we are working on?

  5. Sondre--I found the print on the internet. Your guess is as good as mine as to who owns the rights.