Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… leopard skin

Why the French are wild about leopard skin

Swellboy on… leopard skin

Image: Brijesh Patel

January 04 2011
Nick Foulkes

In her memoirs, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire makes mention of Daisy Fellowes, one of the most glamorous and deadly femmes fatales of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and her entrée at the Beistegui ball in 1951. According to Debo, Daisy, who was “regularly voted the best-dressed woman in France and America, portrayed the Queen of Africa from the Tiepolo frescoes in Würzburg. She wore a dress trimmed with leopard print”; which, mirabile dictu, was something of an eye-opener for the young Duchess – it was, she says, “the first time we had seen such a thing (still fashionable today, sixty years on).” Indeed Daisy’s love of spotted cat skin also made an impression on the young Desmond Guinness, who was inspired to decorate his rooms at Christ Church with leopard.

But while this taste for leopard pelts may have been revolutionary in Britain, it was de rigueur in smart circles in early 20th-century France. Jeanne Lanvin had famously opted for leopardskin-covered loo seats as early as 1925; I remember being struck by them on my first visit to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs some years ago. In turn, Ms Lanvin might well have been inspired by a French style leader of an earlier generation. While touring Les Invalides recently I came across an engaging display of the Emperor Napoleon’s campaign furniture, which included that sine qua non of any successful early 19th-century megalomaniac emperor: a carpet in leopard print.

I could be wrong, but somehow I cannot imagine the Duke of Wellington taking quite such pains over the interior design of his tents. Then again, I suppose we must be grateful; had Napoleon been less concerned with finery and furbelow, he might have put more thought into his military strategy, things at Waterloo might have turned out a bit different, and maybe I would be writing this in French, which would have been rather tricky given my limited command of the language of Molière and Racine.

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People, France