How African Is “African Print” ?
Now more than ever, African fashion is making its way into mainstream culture through what is commonly referred to as “African Print”. While the term serves for brevity, it does little to explain the many types of print that are differentiated by the textiles and unique styles that define them. Depending on the fabric, the production process, and the origin, African print can otherwise be known as Ankara, Kente, Kitenge, Chitenge, Dutch Wax, Batik… and so on. With African print hitting runways, high fashion magazines, and boutiques, there is a major platform for African designers to share their talent both locally and internationally. As these designers rise with the tide, it is important that we acknowledge the work they do by understanding the history of the fabric.
It might come as a surprise, but African Print comes from a mixture of cultures outside of the continent. Originally inspired by the Batik from India, some of the early influences of African print include Indonesian, Japanese, and Javanese culture.
The Javanese were especially notable for perfecting their artistry which was further influenced by colonizing powers, such that the batiks reflected cultures from India and China, as well as Buddhism and Islam. During the period when Java was an Islamic state for example, the use of human figures was banned, changing the aesthetic of the batiks to portray more geometric designs.
By the seventeenth century, as a result of the Dutch rule in Java, Batik made its way to Holland.The Dutch started making Batik using machines, bringing about the term Dutch Wax.The machine made batiks were rejected by Indonesians who preferred manually crafted batiks. As well as by the Europeans who found the designs "unusual". Dutch Wax found a welcoming market in Africa by way of missionaries, traders, and as well as African soldiers who returned with gifts from Java.
Given this history, it's no wonder that the Dutch company Vlisco has been the leading design brand and manufacturer for Wax print in west and central Africa since the 1900’s. Serving a total population of up to 400 million, Vlisco has been a leader in the market for generations. These bold and beautiful prints that were once too exotic for the European market have been increasingly popular in western markets today. Evidence of this is seen in the works of top designers like Derek Lam, Givenchy, Burberry Prorsum, and the celebrities who showcase those designs. Solange Knowles for instance, known for mixing and matching bold colors and prints, has become a fashion icon and an ambassador for African print fashion. Consumer brands likeZara, H&M, Topshop, Mango, and ASOS, not only carry African print lines, but also have them readily available to their most relevant demographic and that is Africa’s middle class . So with all this considered, and if African print is really Dutch by way of Indonesia, how is it that these fabrics have come to embody African culture and identity?
For starters and as mentioned earlier, Dutch wax has been on the continent for generations now. As stated in an article on thebusiness of fashion, “Over 90 percent of Vlisco’s sales comefrom the African continent itself, where, at present, it is one of the only international fashion and apparel brands with a significant presence.” Like a peacock showing off its pretty colors, the vibrant patterns of African print have come to embody Africaness within the continent and the diaspora. Dutch Wax has served as a gift for special ceremonies, a symbol of social class, and a way for African’s to express a sense of style and individuality. Significantly their biggest consumer market, Africa is obviously an integral part of Vlisco’s success. I suppose in this sense one could argue that Dutch wax is indeed African print, without the African Market Vlisco would not be where it is today.
African or not, Dutch Wax is part of African culture. It has reached millions of consumers over generations, exposing the fashion forward individuals that have helped popularize the print. Africa’s role in the fashion industry is no longer defined by banal terms like safari and tribal, but rather as a place that can inspire the rest of the world. Whether it is through phenomenal artists like Yinka Shonibare, Africa Fashion Week, or an upholstered chair at Anthropologie, African print continues to make headlines. With this attention comes a platform for established and upcoming African/African-inspired designers, within the continent and the diaspora, to showcase their work and market to African and non-Africans alike.
Some of the fabulous names that come to mind include Duro Olowu, Deola Sagoe, Jewel By Lisa, Osei - Duro, Loza Maleombho, Adama Kai… and the list goes on. Additionally locally based textile companies like Ghana’sprintex, can only continue to expand, provide jobs and bring revenue to the continent. Dutch Wax may not be authentically African, but it is certainly embedded in the culture. It has opened up dialogue across International borders and where there is dialogue, there is room to create opportunities, and shed even more light to the talent and many gifts that the African continent has yet to share with the rest of the world.