wax prints

In Selfridges a couple of weeks ago I copped a feel of this Burberry Prorsum dress. It felt exactly as you would expect a £1,795 printed silk crepe de chine dress to — soft and thin and light on the fingertips. Touching it made me recoil. I wanted it to feel soft and strong and unyielding like every piece of fabric my mother has turned into a headwrap, or like every pagne my aunts have wrapped around their waists or like every m’boubou ever. The print is deceptive, bright and bold and comfortably geometric. How could it be made of anything other than African fabric? How could it not be tough and tightly textured cotton?

I understand that wax prints specifically, and
African influences generally, have been en vogue
(and in Vogue) for a while. As well as Burberry
Prorsum’s Spring 2012 collection see: Christian
Dior, Juyna Wanatabe, Spring 2009. Marc by Marc
Jacobs, Spring 2010. L.A.M.B., Spring 2011.
Marni, Vivienne Westwood, Autumn 2011. Derek
Lam, Louis Vuitton (Mens), Spring 2012. I can
guiltily admit to admiring individual pieces – my
lust for Marc Jacobs’ Spicy shoes is indecent – but
I’d never buy or wear them. Trends are built to be
fleeting, paying attention to them is exasperating
enough, when they take on things I enduringly
love they become frustrating, bordering on

To me wax print material was always known as fabric, just fabric, as in “Bring me my fabric scarf I want to wrap my hair up,” or “Make sure your fabric dress is ironed in time for church tomorrow morning,” as though this was the first material to ever exist and all other textiles have more descriptive names because they need to distinguish themselves.

Wax print is now the standard issue term and Google searching it returns in 0.32 seconds results which all in some way reference Africa. It is taken for granted that today when we talk about wax prints we’re talking about a type of drawn, blocked, and dyed prints that are African. Even though wax print clothing is also made in China, even though batik like prints are thought to have descended from Indonesia, even though a number of longstanding wax print manufactures operate out of Europe. This fabric’s identity is wrapped up in that of the resource rich, 54 state continent.

Wax prints mean a lot to me. When I see them I think of old school family portraits, of people I’m related to way back when, miles away wearing terse expressions, dressed matter-of-factly in bright and complicated patterns. I think of family gatherings, celebrations, christenings, marriages, birthday parties, reunions which are always riots of colour and repeated shapes. Tough cotton wrapped around heads, tough cotton draped over shoulders, tough cotton tightened around waists, clashing with tough cotton blouses, and matching leather shoes. I think of my aunts and uncles all dressed up on a Saturday night and ready to go a dinner-dance. I think of my mother all dressed down on a Sunday morning, singing hymns, doing housework, my sleeping brother wrapped tightly to her back in yards of fabric. I think of the clothing I’ve inherited, presents I’ve been given, bags, dresses, skirts I rarely wear, bolts of fabric I always do as scarves. I think: this attire is a connection to my heritage, it is clothing comfort food.

I do not want any of these thoughts diluted by appropriation. I feel odd and displaced when willowy-limbed high fashion models catwalk strut in wax prints because then the fabric assumes a new identity.  Its intention to clothe African bodies is lost, its meaning is emptied out away from me.

1 2 
Tags: , ,
Like Us On Facebook Follow Us On Twitter
  • makesyougohmmm


    Some of these “African” prints are actually Dutch interpretations of Indonesian designs that were brought to Europe but which did not become popular at the time. They eventually made their way to some African countries, where they were adapted and popularized.

    “Appopriation” makes the world go round. Get off your high horse. The backbone of current day American societal culture is a mish mash of various European customs, philosophies with pop culture overlays of African, Native American cultures/customs interspersed. I expect more asian influence once China eclipses the U.S. as the new economic powerhouse and more asian immigrants come here.

    PS – western culture is NOT universal culture. Western culture is indeed european culture which eventually gravitated to considering itself a universal culture because of the enlightenment period and other philosophical movements in Europe that was exported to other countries and adapted to fit in their own culture.

    Learn some history for crying out loud. Modern society exists today exactly because of the exchange of ideas, innovations, philosophies.

  • Appropriation is what fuels creativity. Absolutely nothing is orginal in its own right. A designer, an artist, a musician (etc…) gains inspiration from something, somewhere and (hopefully) interprets this to make it their own.

    I’m an African woman and I’ve lived/traveled around the world. I’ve consistantly seen African inspired art, clothing, music, you name it. Au contraire, it actually warms my heart that our culture has such strong and far-reaching influence both within and outside of our continental boundaries. (Actually, African influence within our own culture is a whole other topic, because sadly and very generally speaking, Africans do not appreciate what we inherently create until we are given a “Western” stamp of approval…but not to digress…)

    We (as Africans) really can not lay claim to Wax Print materials, also known as Hollandaise Wax, because we borrowed this from Indonesian culture and in turn made it our own (of sorts). I say of sorts because the leading and most well known/influential manufacturer of Wax Prints, Vlisco, is headquartered in the Netherlands and as recently as last year they did not have one single African, let alone black person, working on its corporate team (a friend worked there last summer, which is how I know). Yet Vlisco dictates the styles, prints, and colors that we love, gravitate towards, and in turn call African…although it is not.

    African culture is a beautiful thing…why limit it to only ourselves to appreciate? I would more so love to see those designers, both African and non-African, that choose to draw influence from Africa dig deeper into African culture for forms of inspiration. “African” wax print and imbiguous “tribal” mentions should not be the end all. We have so many beautiful textiles and resources that are underutilized.

    Regardless of race and culture, using African textiles and resources (especially those that are truly inherent to African culture and sourced from Africa) helps to promote both economic prosperity on the continent and a better + brighter understanding of African culture that goes beyond the negative and sad portrayals of our people.

    • @ Enyinne O.

      Regardless of race and culture, using African textiles and resources (especially those that are truly inherent to African culture and sourced from Africa) helps to promote both economic prosperity on the continent and a better + brighter understanding of African culture that goes beyond the negative and sad portrayals of our people.

      My sister,
      Which economic prosperity is this you talk of?!
      What understanding, other than Maasai’s are really cool and can jump high in the air?!

      Let’s keep it 100. We are being pawned!

    • Hi African Mami,

      Here are a few examples to substantiate my reference to economic prosperity as aforementioned (I’m leading with a white owned company, since your perspective is regarding theft from our culture…however, I have further provided both white and black owned examples below) :

      Indego Africa provides education, resources, commendable wages, and sustainable employment to female artisans in Rwanda, where they manufacture a range of lifestyle products made from textiles and natural resources sourced locally. In addition, Indego Africa links American retailers and brands to their artisans for additional employment, including global brands such as Anthropologie, Ralph Lauren, and Nicole Miller. Every item purchased through Indego Africa is signed by the artisan who crafted it and comes with a short story providing background and knowledge of the materials used for the product.

      Here are some other examples of brands (regardless of race and culture) who manufacture, if not entirely in, a portion of their collections in Africa. Furthermore, when the below brands utilize African textiles, they provide context, meaning, and relevancy to the textiles they have chosen (note, they have all achieved global recognition as well):

      Jewel By Lisa (jewelbylisa.com.ng)
      Afia (shopafia.com)
      Maki Oh (maki-oh.com)
      Suno (sunony.com)
      Loza Maleombho (lozamaleombho.com)
      Edun (edun.com)
      Oliberte (oliberte.com)

      Read Jacqueline Shaw’s Africa Fashion Guide to further educate yourself on brands that promote economic sustainability in Africa. Jacqueline and her team provide a culturally inclusive viewpoint, so you will see examples coming from both Africans and non-Africans. http://www.africafashionguide.com

      So to answer your question, my dearest Global Mami…

      The above is just a glimpse into what I speak of, when I speak of “promoting economic prosperity on the continent and a better + brighter understanding of African culture.”…regardless of race.

      I prefer to counter the argument of “theft from our culture” with stories of praise for those who are promoting the beauty of African culture and the sustainability of our economic prowess…otherwise, this dual-sided reality will become buried behind a more narrow perspective, which is often times the most vocal.

      Enyinne Owunwanne

    • So Over This Ish

      I agree with you, Enyinne O.

      While every culture is unique, we can’t deny that all cultures borrow certain elements from one another and adapt/incorporate it into their own styles.

      I’m of partial Jamaican heritage. I see people of all races and ethnicities, people who aren’t even Jamaican, rocking dreadlocks without understanding the significance behind it. It’s not just a “hairstyle”. I see people wearing Bob Marley t-shirts when they probably aren’t familiar with his music and what he represented on an Afrocentric level. I hear people quoting Marcus Garvey without acknowledging that he was Jamaican. Sometimes it bothers me to see a part of my culture being appropriated and turned into a commodity…but in the end, this is what people do.

      I’ve worn kente cloth myself a long time ago. My mother dated a guy from Ghana when I was a kid. I believe that as long as a person respects and understands the culture from which they are borrowing, there should be no problem. It is only when there is disrespect and a lack of knowledge that it becomes problematic.

      I love Native American jewelry, especially some of the Zuni and Navajo pieces. I have educated myself extensively on the struggles of Native American people in the United States and First Nations people in Canada. I have immense respect for the beauty of Native American culture, but I see nothing wrong with incorporating elements of it into my personal style.

      I wouldn’t walk around in a dashiki but I would rock a few African pieces because they’re beautiful AND because I’m paying homage to the diversity of Africa. It really isn’t as deep as some folks make it out to be.

    • So Over This Ish

      BTW…I love the outfit on the far right. The bow in her hair is cute, too! :)

  • Socially Maladjusted

    “With regards to wax prints and Africa it always it bandies about the word ‘tribal’ framing African culture as one that exists in only the most primitive sense.”

    What’s wrong with so called tribal and primitive? those are only perjorative words among westerners (black and white) who think this system is the pinnacle of human achievement.

    It’s not,

    Western culture is a death culture with a death system that will destroy the earth if it’s allowed to continue.

    Next point

    Can’t see why how any black woman could object to white women appropriating Afrocentric fashion.

    I’m sure I don’t need to spell out why so let’s weave it at that.


    • Socially Maladjusted

      In fact, from now on I’ll use the term death culture when I’m speaking of western culture, The term western culture is too neutral and even friendly a term to describe a culture of savages who are hell bent on wiping out every living thing on earth in the name of their gluttonous consumption.

  • The operative word is spring line. W hich probably explains the light weight fabric. These are status brands and quite frankly they are probably not meant to be worn for more than a season or two. I think you are making way too much to do about nothing.

  • Elm Nehmara

    I am a white woman andI have worn African clothes and own African clothes. I respect where they come from and the lady I get them from is from Sierra Leone. I do know what you are trying to say about how fashion treats African clothes and prints though. I think we should all embrace each others’ cultures instead of trying to segeragate them.