With its geometric patterns, bold prints, and rich, electric pops of color, the wrap dresses on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage are unmistakable emblems of African style. But the luxury textile company Vlisco, one of the most popular purveyors of African fabrics in Central and West Africa, is actually operated out of a small town in southern Holland.
The company has been producing and selling the patterned textiles since 1846, when its founder, the Dutch entrepreneur Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen, discovered that he could mechanize the wax-printing method used to make batiks in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Vlissingen was not alone, says Dilys E. Blum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s senior curator of costume and textiles and the exhibition’s curator. Several Dutch textile companies copped Indonesian styles and exported them to the Indonesian market during that time.
But by the end of the 19th century, the market in the Dutch East Indies was over saturated–so the company started exporting fabric to countries in Central and West Africa. The business took off there, and Vlisco fabrics are still a favorite of the region. Today they’re sold in African open-air markets and boutiques, and used by couture houses.
Its origin story seems like a classic example of a colonial power profiting off a cultural history that isn’t theirs–and it has received criticism for that. Chief among the critics is the Nigerian scholar Tunde Akinwumi, who published a widely-read paper in the Journal of Pan African Studies called The “African Print” Hoax.
Blum says what complicates the narrative is the relationship Vlisco had and still has with vendors in Africa. When the company started selling to African countries, it sold through agents who distributed the fabrics to vendors–mostly women–who would then sell the textiles in open-air markets. When the fabric left the Vlisco factory in Holland, it was only labeled with a stock number on the box. The sellers took up the task of naming the fabric, often after local music, current events, or proverbs. They did this in part to be able to identify the material quickly, and in part because they knew it was a better marketing strategy to give the fabric a familiar, symbolic or tongue-and-cheek name.
In that way, the relationship between Vlisco and the vendors was relatively symbiotic, says Blum. “By naming something you make it your own,” she says. “And because the clothing is all custom made it takes it one step further. On the body they are something completely different because the dress maker or tailor has to use that pattern in a creative way.”
Ownership over the fabric was more than just symbolic. Families in Africa would arrange for the license to sell the fabrics exclusively. The trade is typically passed through the matriarchal line, with the mother handing down the license to her daughter and her to her daughter. Often the women-named fabrics would convey specific messages or portray a specific culture. For example, a popular fabric with a print of open bird cages with two birds flying out is sometimes called “You Leave, I Leave”–as in, if you’re not going to invest fully in this marriage, I’m out, too. Other fabrics are named after popular songs, references to architectural landmarks or even in homage to Michelle Obama as style icon.
Here are a few of our favorites, culled from the Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage exhibition:
Happy Family (1952)
One the most popular Vlisco heritage patterns, Happy Family features a hen surrounded by her chicks and chicks-to-be (in the form of eggs). Only the rooster’s head is shown, intimating that it is the maternal hen that is central to family life.
“[Vlisco textile designer] Toon van de Manakker’s design, inspired by the silk embroidered tunics worn by Christian noblewomen in the mid-1800s in the central and highlands of Ethiopia, became an icon of the early 1960s and ’70s and remains one of Vlisco’s most recognizable patterns. The pattern’s name in Ghana, Angelina, derives from a popular 1966 song by Benin musician Clément Mélomé. It is also known as Miriam Makeba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after the South African singer; as Addis Ababa, after the capital of Ethiopia; and as Cigar Band.”
1004 Blocks (1984)
“In Nigeria, this pattern is known as 1004 Blocks, a reference to the apartments built in 1977 on Victoria Island in Lagos for civil servants. In Benin and Togo, it is called Milliardaire (Millionaire).”
Michelle Obama’s Handbag (2015)
This design is known as LV (Louis Vuitton) and Le Sac de Michelle Obama (Michelle Obama’s Handbag), likely a reference to the first lady’s visit to Ghana with the president in 2009.
[All Photos: courtesy Vlisco]