Everything You Wanted to Know About … The Difference Between Vintage Animal Prints

October 8th, 2010
brown cow print

Lions & tigers & cheetahs and … OH MY!

“Oh my” is right — especially when you’re trying to figure out the difference between all of these big-bad-animal prints!

A good friend over at Elle Decor recently asked me to help her distinguish between cheetah and leopard print … and I couldn’t give her an answer! I fumbled for the right right answer but didn’t even know where or how to start. After that embarrassing fashion faux pas, I realized that like most people, I was confusing the two prints or just grouping the print under the default umbrella of “animal print” to cover my lack of knowledge.

Well, the truth is that there’s a whole lotta animals out there and a whole lotta prints to go with ’em. So I thought it was only right to set the record straight and do the research and spread the knowledge to you so that when shopping for this season’s big trend [that’s right … animal prints!] you can know exactly WHAT it is that you’re wearing. Or better yet — so that you can pay just the right compliment to someone rockin’ an awesome vintage giraffe print dress [scroll down to learn how you can buy one from the 60s on Etsy!]

So read on for the 411 on cheetahs, tigers and lions, while also getting the lowdown on cow, zebra, giraffe and dalmatian prints, too.

Got a “Everything you wanted to know about …” question for me? Don’t hesitate to ask me on Facebook, Twitter, or just by sending a plain ‘ole email!

xx, SD



Cheetahs have solid black round/oval spots and black “tear lines” that start at their eyes and end toward their mouths. Prints don’t include these tear lines, but JUST in case you ever spot a cheetah in the wild!

cheetah print

Note these solid spots against a burnt orange foundation. Total cheetah!

vintage cheetah skirt
Vintage Cheetah Skirt, $158 Etsy.com

Buy this skirt now!



Leopards have a pattern of clusters of black and brown spots which look like roses, called rosettes. You can tell the difference between a leopard and cheetah because the leopard’s solid black spots are clustered around a darker brown, forming the “rosettes.” Cheetahs and leopards are so easily confused because while leopards have rosettes, they also have black solid spots, too. It’s the mix that throws designers — and therefore, their customers — off.

leopard print
leopard vintage top
Vintage Leopard Top, $98 marketpublique.com

Buy this top now!

cheetah vs leopard prints

Note this graphic! There’s a pop quiz at the end ;-) JK!



Ah, the glorious tiger! It’s hard to mistake a tiger print. Tiger prints are often represented in various colors — wild purple stripes against yellow for a nu-rave look, or red stripes against white for some sporty sass. It doesn’t matter how you alter the colors — the stripes make the tiger pattern more easily identifiable than the cheetah or leopard.

tiger print
vintage tiger print dress
Vintage Tiger Sweater Dress, $42 etsy.com

Buy this dress now!



I made a huge discovery in my research of animal prints. I learned that zebra prints are often falsely marketed as such. The design speaks to a white tiger [see below], but the product itself claims that it is selling you a piece of zebra print. So wrong!

Zebra prints are not crazy zig-zag patterns, which is what you may have an image of in your mind when you think of zebra print. See the image below, which is a correct design interpretation of a zebra print design. Compare it to the picture of a real live zebra above. See how the stripes are close together, straight and smooth?

Yet, when you see the second print interpretation farther below, you notice how the zebra design is given a psychedelic edge. This is NOT a real zebra pattern — this is actually closer to the design of a white tiger.

zebra print
Correct Zebra Print

Straight stripes. Smooth lines. Tightly packed together. These are the pillar characteristics of a real zebra print.

bad zebra print
Incorrect Zebra Print

These stripes are not straight. They are not smooth. And I feel like I should be smoking something illegal and jamming to the Grateful Dead right now. Not correct zebra!

zebra faux fur jacket
Vintage Faux Zebra Fur Jacket, $69 etsy.com

Buy this jacket now!

vintage zebra skirt
Vintage Zebra Skirt, $55 etsy.com

Example of a misinterpreted zebra print — this should be marked as white tiger!

Buy this skirt now!


white tiger
White Tiger

Note the difference between the real live tiger above and the real live zebra farther above. See how the stripes are eerily similar?  I can’t blame anyone — designers, sellers, buyers, whomever! — for confusing the two. It’s all about having a good eye and of course, the right information to use that good eye for what it’s worth.

So just to reiterate: Zebra stripes are straight, smooth and tightly packed.

White tiger stripes? They’re a bit more crazy. A bit more fun. A bit more … fearless! The stripes are rugged. They zig zag. And they shouldn’t be as tightly packed as the design of a zebra’s black stripes.

white tiger print
White Tiger
white tiger dress
Vintage White Tiger Dress, $34 etsy.com

Buy this dress now!


spotted brown cow
Brown & White Cow

I think the brown and white cow pattern is TOTALLY underrated! I would love to help popularize this pattern, not only because it’s under-the-radar but because it can be worn in a very on-trend Western inspired way.

So the deal with the brow and black cow? The pattern is noticeably different than the black and white cow — if you know what you are looking for.

While the black and white cow has extra large, irregularly shaped black spots scattered along with smaller black spots on a white foundation, the brown and white cow is colored mostly brown on white. You could even reverse the order and say the brown and white cow is WHITE on brown. The pattern below shows the dominance of color in white, but the awesome vintage brown & white cow pattern bag shows how the brown coloring takes precedence in true B&W cow design.

To also note: The brown and white cow is not to be confused with the giraffe brown on tan colors. The B&W cow pattern consists of those quintessential irregular shapes, while the giraffe’s brown spots are rectangular in shape. Keep on scrolling to see the difference!

brown cow print
brown and white cow print purse
Cow Print Purse, $42 etsyc.om

Buy this purse now!



There she is is! The remarkable giraffe in all of her splendor. I LOVE the giraffe print because it’s just another underrated print that deserves a return to action in the fashion world.

You can catch a giraffe print by noting the use of similarly sized rectangular shapes clustered tight on a tan background. My research showed that some designers used more circular shapes to create the giraffe pattern. The dress below [that is oh-so-awesome!] is described as a giraffe print by the seller, but does lean more toward a brown & white colored dalmatian print.

See how these things can be so tricky!?!?

giraffe print
vintage giraffe dress
Vintage Giraffe Dress, $68 etsy.com

Buy this dress now!


Black & White Cow

It’s hard for someone like me to confuse the cow print with anything else — I do hail from farm country, after all!

But seriously, you can confuse the black & white cow print with it’s similar B&W counterpart, the dalmatian pattern. The main difference: A cow pattern has irregular shaped black spots that are various sizes scattered on a white foundation. The dalmatian pattern, on the other hand, are smooth ovals of similar size concentrated tight on a white foundation.

black and white cow Black & White Cow
cow print Black & White Cow
vintage cow print pants for Guess Vintage Cow Print Pants by Guess, $70 etsy.com

Buy these pants now!



I’m such a dog lover! I’ve never owned a dalmatian, and I have to say that they are actually rare to see, but when I see one I can’t help but think of 101 Dalmatians and the terrible story of Cruella De Vil!

So don’t be like Cruella … and invest in faux, vintage prints of dalmatian designs! And you can know that you’re investing in real dalmatian design by noting the oval shape of black spots that are clustered tight and similar in size. The vintage dress below has the dalmatian spots clustered tighter than you would see on a giraffe, cow, cheetah, leopard, etc.

So when in doubt, check how concentrated the spots are to give it true dalmatian-worthy approval.

dalmatian print
vintage dalmatian dress
Vintage Dalmatian Dress, $145 etsy.com

Buy this dress now!

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Facebook Comments


  1. What a great post! SO useful!
    I’ve got another stumper for you – what about Ocelot??!!! AAAAHHHH

    Thank you for all the info, Sammy!

  2. Nancy Little says:

    This is an AWESOME post. I always wondered the difference too. Thanks!

  3. Alejandra says:

    FABULOUS post lady!!

  4. Andi says:

    Great post, Sammy! So helpful!

  5. Kocinera says:

    Great (and very helpful) post! I now know that I’m looking for a leopard print pencil skirt, not cheetah. :D

  6. Leah says:

    Thank you for answering my query! Such an informative and interesting post, and now I know!

  7. Lily says:

    Thank you for this! <333 :o) This was very helpful!

  8. The road sees rough a roar, and the roar and walked on.

  9. Steven says:

    I was just reading about this coming through as a Spring 2011 trend on Chictopia, so you were right on. I’m going have to catch up on your posts!

  10. Catherine Peddie says:

    There is another subspecies of giraffe with a significantly different pattern – thin white lines between the brown spots. See Wikipedia entry for good photos of the subspecies:

  11. Sammy says:

    Catherine this is great to know — thank you! Had no idea. I bet designers don’t either and are accidentally designing this subspecies of giraffe into their clothing patterns. Thank you for your insights! xx Sammy

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