Leopard Print vs. Cheetah: Spot the Subtle Difference

Let’s be honest: most of us have used the term “cheetah print” and “leopard print” interchangeably. We don’t even pay attention to it most of the time. It might not seem like a big deal, but when shopping for clothes and making fashion decisions, it’s important to know what you’re looking for. With so many different animal prints, you don’t want to get mixed up.

So what is the difference between cheetah and leopard print? If you want to brush up on your print knowledge, then read on for some enlightening definitions and distinctions.

What Does Cheetah Print Look Like?

Cheetah print often has a slightly more elegant and minimal look than its leopard counterpart. Cheetahs generally have fairly light fur; they sport an assortment of small solid black spots, which are spaced apart evenly. Some spots are smaller than others, but they have a uniform appearance.

What Does Leopard Print Look Like?

Leopard print is probably more like what you think of when you refer to these two patterns. Leopards have a slightly dark fur than cheetahs––a golden brown or dark blonde. Leopards don’t actually have uniform spots like cheetahs do. Instead, their fur has black speckles that form little circles of three to five; in the center of these circles is a slightly darker brown. The pattern is almost rose-like.

Are Other Animal Prints That Look Similar to Leopard and Cheetah Print?

While leopard and cheetah print is the most common big cat prints, there are actually a few other options that look very similar. If you look at the subtle differences, however, you will be able to tell them apart. Here are some examples.

  • Jaguar: You probably don’t hear anyone referring to jaguar print very often, but it’s likely you have seen it. Jaguar print looks most similar to leopard––they both have specks that form horseshoe shapes. At the center of the jaguar’s specks, however, are additional black dots.
  • Ocelot: Ocelot fur features spots similar to that of a leopard. However, their spots are stretched and elongated almost into stripes.
  • Tiger: You probably recognize tiger print fairly easily. Tigers have brown or orange fur and long black or brown stripes.
  • Snow Leopard: Some prints take it up a notch by opting for a snow leopard look rather than an ordinary leopard. These have a similar pattern, but the snow leopard is generally white, gray, or light beige.

What Is the History of Leopard and Cheetah Print in the US? 

Although these big cats evolved to blend into their environment, their beautiful spots do quite the opposite for those who wear them. Even old depictions of the Greek god Dionysus, famous for his partying, portray him draped in leopard fur. What is the fascination with these prints, and where did it begin?

In the 1920s and 30s, Hollywood held much responsibility for bringing these prints to popularity. Starlets draped in leopard stoles and cheetah coats were depicted as objects of desire for their male co-stars. For example, in the 1932 movie Tarzan the Apeman, the infamous love interest Jane is seen wearing animal prints. 

Their popularity also rose with the New Look fashion wave, championed by designers like Dior. Christian Dior even once said, “If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.” This set the tone for the alluring nature of leopard and cheetah prints.

The 1940s saw a host of pinup models sporting leopard print mini-dresses and lingerie, creating higher demand for the trendy, fierce look. Christian Dior, influenced by his confidante Mitzah Bricard, created a new line of animal print clothing. Many women embraced this chic style.

The 1960s really saw animal prints take off. Fashion icons of the counterculture movement like Edie Sedgwick embraced the look as subversive and powerful. More sophisticated figures, like Jackie Kennedy, help bring these prints to an even wider public. The end of the 1960s also saw the introduction of faux fur clothing lines after the growth of the animal rights movement.

The popularity of leopard and cheetah prints continued to evolve in the next few decades, as well as other animal prints. From rockstars to R&B singers to talked-about socialites, animal print appealed to those looking for funky, glam, and risque. Today, they remain as popular as ever, appearing in dresses, shoes, jackets, and even swimsuits.

What Other Kinds of Animal Prints Are There?

Leopard and cheetah along with other big cat prints have long dominated the animal prints in the fashion industry. However, other prints also started trending around the 1980s. Zebra stripes and giraffe spots, for example, rose in popularity. Reptilian skins also started trending. Snake and alligator patterns often pop up on boots and jackets. Cow print, though rarer, can also be found on some clothing. A lot of jewelry and hairpieces utilize tortoiseshell patterns as well.

How Do You Style Leopard and Cheetah Prints?

How you dress is of course ultimately up to you. However, if you’re new to animal prints or just looking for some ideas, here are some style guidelines.

Tips for Wearing Animal Prints

  • Don’t overwhelm the look. Remember: less is more. Animal prints are a statement by themselves, so cluttering your look with too many different patterns can end up creating a bit of a mess. Besides, why take the eye away from a great print?
  • Play with neutrals and colors. There is no right or wrong path here. Pair a black and white zebra print with a bold red, for example. If you want a more understated, yet sultry, look, just add a black or brown item to go with your animal print garment.
  • Accessorize sparingly. Once again, you don’t want to end up looking too cluttered or loud. Gold hoops and black leather belts are a classic pair with animal prints. Depending on whether your print is warm or cool-toned, you should stick to gold or silver jewelry.
  • Don’t be afraid to go glam. Given the history of animal prints, don’t shirk away from that powerful feeling. Confidence is a great accessory to a leopard or cheetah print. A bit of luxury never hurt anybody, so embrace the look for all its worth.
  • Do the unexpected. There’s nothing wrong with a classic leopard print coat. However, it can be fun to put an animal print somewhere where it isn’t expected. A tiger stripe headband, for example, or a leopard print swimsuit can be a fun addition to your wardrobe

<Which Print Is Better: Leopard or Cheetah?

If you’re looking for a clear answer to this question, there, unfortunately, is not a universal one. Both prints are fashionable and can look great when styled correctly. Which one you gravitate to completely depends on your personal style. For a general rule, you might consider cheetah print to be a bit more subtle and sophisticated. Leopard print, on the other hand, can add extra allure and ferocity to your look.

What’s the Final Takeaway?

The storied legacy of leopard and cheetah print probably goes back farther than recorded history. Once a symbol of power and wealth, then of rebellion and feminine power, these patterns continue to loom large in the fashion world. 

If you’ve never experimented with animal prints before, give them a try! Whatever you do with them is your choice. Whether you go for a more chic cheetah print gown, bathing suit, or a funky leopard print skirt, there’s a lot of fun to be had. Take a look around in your closet or at your local mall. Now that you know how to identify these animal prints correctly, there is a world of fashion experimentation ahead of you. Have fun!


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