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The Fraught History Of African Textiles

A new show at the Fowler Museum at UCLA explores the ideas of appropriation and ownership of African dress, and how African history and culture is communicated through the printed fabrics.

African print fashion, the subject of a new show at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, is so closely associated with a particular place and heritage it instantly conjures up an image in one’s mind. The bold colors and evocative patterns are sold in the open air markets of countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Senegal, and fashioned into glamorous pieces by local seamstresses and tailors. Yet as localized as these fashions seem, the make and manufacture of African prints have always had a much more global—and much more complex—history.

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Lekan Jeyifo (b. Nigeria) and Walé Oyéjidé (b. Nigeria, 1981), Johannesburg 2081 A.D. Africa 2081 A.D. series. [Image: Courtesy Ikiré Jones]

A Complicated Legacy

The story that is usually told about African prints is one that revolves around Vlisco, the Dutch luxury textile company and arguably the most popular purveyor of African print cloth even today. 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 worn in the West Indies (today it is Indonesia). Vlisco introduced wax-prints to West African markets, and their fabrics are still best-sellers in those countries. The high-quality threads and beautiful designs make the prints popular among haute couture designers working in African fashion today.

Several scholars and cultural commentators have criticized the Dutch company’s prominence in the African print industry as problematic. Chief among them is the Nigerian scholar Tunde Akinwumi, author of the influential essay “The ‘African Print’ Hoax,” which argues that “African print” is a misnomer since the motif is based in non-African design and was introduced to Africa by the Dutch. Regardless of their origin, however, Africa prints have now been long embedded in African culture and are a source of national pride. Many of the large African print companies like Vlisco are still located outside of Africa—but Betsy Quick, a co-curator of the Fowler exhibition, points out that in Africa the decision for where to source fashion is often a political one, with some sellers only carrying African-made prints.

By contrast, others see the relationship between Vlisco, the African vendors, and the women who fashion them in their own style as a symbiotic one. When I spoke to Dilys E. Blum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s senior curator of costume and textiles, last year about the museum’s Vlisco show, she echoed that sentiment. “By naming something you make it your own,” she told me in an interview. “And because the clothing is all custom-made it takes it one step further. On the body they are something completely different because the dressmaker or tailor has to use that pattern in a creative way.”

African Prints, Made In China

Alexis Temomanin, designer (b. Côte d’Ivoire), Dent de Man, based in London, United Kingdom
. Les Toiles d’araignée, man’s suit, designed 2014, produced 2016. [Photo: Courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA]
In short, African print fashion has a complicated legacy and a rich history, both of which are expanded on in Fowler’s African-Print Fashion Now! exhibition. Adding to the commonly known history, the show brings up more recent events—the controversial structural adjustment programs enacted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—which had an outsized impact on the way that African prints are valued, made, and distributed.

In the 1980s, the WB and IMF created loan packages for the majority of sub-Saharan African countries, which were experiencing economic crisis. The 1970s had brought a number of global economic disasters, including the oil crisis, debt crisis, and multiple economic depressions, that affected both the developing and developed world. The U.S. adjusted its monetary policy in the early ’80s, which allowed the country to compete globally and resulted in a flood of capital to the U.S.—but it also further decimated the economies of the world’s poorest nations.

Structural adjustment programs (SAPs) set out to fix the imbalance with a series of loans meant to encourage free-market economies in developing nations. However, the measures have been criticized for being a cookie-cutter solution that makes borrowing countries beholden to the countries they are borrowing from. Today, it’s widely considered a failed measure, and SAPs have shifted to a more flexible approach meant to increase the involvement of the indebted countries.

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For fashion in Africa, the introduction of SAPs meant that many luxury and local African print companies had to close. The measures removed tariffs, making imported Asian knock-offs cheaper to buy than the textiles made in Africa. Yet the influx of cheap Asian fabrics did provide a silver lining, as Quick points out: The patterned prints, even if inauthentic and lower quality, became more accessible to everyone.

Accessibility often leads to ingenuity, as more people are able to experiment with fashion if they can afford the fabric. Since African clothing trends have always been influenced by women, African fashion flourished during this time period when more women could buy more fabric.

These days 80% of the Ghanaian market is Asian cloth, according to Quick, but the quality of the Asian textiles has improved over time. As the economies of West African countries have become more stable, more high-end merchandisers have begun carrying African-made cloth again, as well as the luxury Vlisco varieties. In some areas, vendors take a hardline stance toward only selling authentically African fabrics, as an expression of national pride. Quick says that last time she was in Accra, Ghana, for instance, a few shops were wary that if they sold the cheaper Asian fabrics, authorities would confiscate their cloth on the grounds that it undercuts African fashion.

Global Prints, Localized Fashion

Regardless of where the cloth is sourced, the most important aspect of African prints has always been how African women—and men, though to a lesser extent—use them to communicate. Women influence the fashion trends in Africa and worldwide by personalizing their dress with their tailors, and expressing themselves through various embellishments and styles. “The basic styles are constantly being updated and modified,” says Quick. “Big sleeves are the style one year, and big bold zippers in bright brass or silver the next. One [style in the exhibition] has four zippers just on the skirt. In the West, too, it has become a fashionable style embellishment.”

The prints are communicative, too, on a more literal level. Plenty of Vlisco fabrics have tongue-in-cheek names—like “You Leave, I Leave” or “Michelle Obama’s Handbag”—named by vendors to convey certain messages or represent a specific culture. Many of the patterns on display at the Fowler show were created in response to key historical moments, communicated through dress. For example, the Ghanaian Independence Day Freedom Cloth depicts an outline of Ghana and a repeating portrait of Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the independence movement and the country’s first prime minister. The cloth was created around 1957 when Ghana (at the time known as the Gold Coast) gained independence from Britain.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Vlisco’s Angelina print was popular for many in the black power movement, who fashioned the Coptic altar cloth into dashikis. In 2015, when 18-year-old Kyemah McEntrye used the same print to make the dress she wore to prom in East Orange, New Jersey, the media picked it up and people went wild. Now she’s a designer at Parsons School of Design in New York with a client list that includes model Tyra Banks and singer-songwriter Naturi Naughton. Her work is also included in the show.

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Quick also points out the International Women’s Day fabrics issued annually in Cameroon for the holiday and march. A committee of representatives from the 10 regions in Cameroon select the fabric for the year. The Fowler show features the fabric that won the 2016 competition and was worn by hundreds of women marching against violence and terrorism.

Seeing photos of women marching in a procession all wearing the same cloth was a truly remarkable moment,” says Quick. “It’s not unlike what happened in the U.S. right after the election with all of us in pink hats. There is power in solidarity, and dress can be a powerful means of connecting and unifying people.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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