When it came to TV infamy in 2020, two names rose above the rest: Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. The mulletted, jail-dwelling zoo proprietor and his activist enemy were the stars of Netflix hit Tiger King. Released early in lockdown, the series spawned feverish debate on everything from animal welfare to whether it might, hypothetically, be possible to feed your spouse to a tiger. At the centre of it all, Baskin became a pop culture hit and – perhaps surprisingly – a style superstar.
Baskin’s trademark animal prints have since been inescapable, with the press praising her “Eton mess of leopard spots and tiger stripes”, often worn top to toe. Brands such as Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana and Balenciaga majored in animal print for spring/summer 2020, meaning that Baskin was, by chance, right on trend – the everywoman who happened to be sporting the look of the moment, because that was always her look. The fast fashion retailer Missguided published a guide to channelling her style, while celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West would later use her as Halloween inspiration.
The reason why Baskin’s style has felt so important in 2020 is, I believe, that it is a true reflection of who she is. Baskin wears animal print because it speaks to her convictions as an animal lover, not because it looks good – though it pretty much always does. Animal print is, for her, “a uniform” – Steve Jobs’s polo neck with a Peta twist. While occasionally reminiscent of the soap stars Kat Slater and Bet Lynch, Baskin’s prints are displayed on clothing that is more floaty and comfortable than loud and cinched-in. Paired with long, beaded necklaces and flowery headdresses, her look could come across as an eccentric affectation, if it wasn’t for her sense of purpose. She is the one true Nirvana fan in a sea of H&M T-shirts; she is the churchgoer who rolls an eye as they pass a sea of diamante “fashion crosses” in Claire’s.
But does her trademark style have links to the deep depths of her psyche? The fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen told the women’s website Bustle that an affinity with leopard print “could indicate that [the wearer] is circumspective, meaning they’re always on alert and on guard essentially … cats are peculiar creatures that have an amount of self-love that allows them to be alone. But when their owner comes home, they can be snuggled next to them. So they have this duality, if you will.”
Indeed, Baskin’s own dichotomy is at the heart of the series. Are we to believe her side of the story – that Exotic threatened her and targeted her business – or was she in fact out to get him? The pink leopard-print top Baskin sports in the majority of publicity images for the show is frivolous, but with an inherent toughness. This is, after all, a show about a legal clash, which saw Exotic convicted of a plot to kill her. This is entertainment, but it’s also an expression of our basest emotions. Tiger King is, in and of itself, animalistic. The symbol of the caged animal extends out to Exotic, now serving a 22-year prison sentence.
For all this potential gravitas, Baskin’s style has been a beacon during a difficult year, as seen in those Halloween looks. It may well have a deeper meaning – even a subconscious one – but at its heart, Baskin’s love of animal print appeals because it’s fun, something that has been severely lacking of late. Always canny, she is now hawking coronavirus face masks, furnished – of course – in leopard print. Having got us through the first lockdown with Tiger King, she might just get us through the second.