The leopard fur craze took off in the 1960s. This was a time of confidence when a person could display their wealth and it was also a time when there was far less sensitivity towards conservation particularly with respect to fur coats.
It has been said by Dr Morris that Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy, supported by other major personalities such as the British monarchy at the time (Queen Elizabeth) and Elizabeth Taylor, promoted, indirectly and innocently, the mass slaughter of something in the region of a quarter of a million leopards in order to feed the frenzy for leopardskin coats.
I’m sure that if these well-known celebrities had known what they were doing they would not have worn leopardskin coats but they did and they did the damage. By the end of 1960s, the mass slaughter of leopards was very much under way to satisfy demand.
In 1968, alone, no less than 9,556 leopard skins were imported into the United States. And let’s be clear, it took up to 8 leopards to make one coat. This demand soon resulted in the leopard becoming so rare that conservationists were alarmed about the future of the species and their possible extinction.
The craze in fact, according to Desmond Morris, began in New York when designer Oleg Cassini, in a conversation with Jackie Kennedy, suggested that she might like to try a leopard fur coat despite the fact that they were out of fashion and had been some time.
Mrs Kennedy was apparently delighted. We all know that at the time she was a major style icon. Having subsequently been photographed in a leopardskin coat there was an immediate craze to imitate her. As mentioned, the craze cost the lives of around 250,000 leopards during the 1960s.
We are told that Oleg Cassini was horrified by this thought and started producing fake fur made from synthetic fibres. He hoped that they would be acceptable and be replacement of the real thing.
Fortunately, the 1960s also saw the beginning of the modern conservation movement, in part due to the efforts of the naturalist Peter Scott. Pressure was brought to bear on governments to control the killing of leopards.
The US Congress, in 1969, introduced an act that prohibited the importation of certain rare subspecies of leopards. Unfortunately it was less than effective because it relied upon customs being able to distinguish between different species of leopards. They were unable to do this and the trade continued until 1973 when Congress passed a tough conservation act which prohibited importation of all leopard fur. This put an end to the trade.
After 1973, fines of $100,000 could be dished out to anyone in the USA selling reluctant garments. There was also the possibility of a prison sentence.
Unfortunately this prohibition only related to the USA and, therefore, in many other parts of the world the slaughter continued but there were so few leopards left in the wild that the cost of a leopard skin became astronomical. This, when added to the greater awareness and sensitivity of people towards conservation at the time, made wearing leopard skin less and less acceptable to the point where wealthy women venturing out in public were daubed with paint by angry activists. Henceforth leopardskin coats were gradually confined to the wardrobes of the rich owners.
There were attempts to revive the industry but to little effect. The attractive spotted design of the leopardskin became a design feature in leopard print scarves, dresses and swimsuits, which are still popular today.