A Story of African Fabrics
Updated: Mar 19
I have always loved fashion. It communicates. As a child when my parents divorced, I hated packing a bag for weekends at my father. How could I know what I would want to wear the next day when I didn't know how I would be feeling?
I also always loved colour. When I was in recovery from a major depressive episode, I spent my days colouring in. To be able to create something beautiful outside of myself made me feel like my inner landscape was less barren than it felt.
The first time I travelled, the one thing I bought for myself was clothes. It seemed the best way to carry the memory of the place home with me.
At 18, I lived and worked in Ghana for three months. My hosts took me to a favourite tailor, Marjorie. We established a relationship - I spent hours in the fabric markets of Accra, choosing a vivid pink print with green lipsticks and a dark blue cloth with yellow birds fleeing their cages. At the high schools where I worked, the students wore a school fabric instead of a school uniform, cut for their bodies and in the style that they preferred.
When I spent the weekend in Lomé, capital of Togo, I came home with blue fabric printed with yellow cars. Then I'd arrive at Marjorie with sketches, torn out pages of magazines, and rolls of fabric - and she'd make miracles. When I went to see Marjorie to pick up my final items - high waisted blue pants with a checked and polka dot pattern - she laughed and said I must come back again before I left even though I had run out of money. The next week she presented me with a beautiful green flared skirt with orange geometric shapes reading 'The High Life.'
Seven years later I still wear it. It has been joined by dresses I made in Kinshasa, DRC. Each item is stunning - unique and a celebration of their maker's skill.
These fabrics have a complicated history. They are variously referred to as 'African prints, 'wax-prints,' 'ankara prints,' and 'Dutch wax prints,' this last because much of the fabric found in markets across the continent is produced in the Netherlands and has been for over a century.
The Dutch company Vlisco is arguably the biggest producer - it was this company that introduced these prints to West African markets (in both senses) in the first place.
Such cloth is also referred to as batik, which was originally the traditional fabric of what is now Indonesia. Indonesia consists of a group of islands. Many of these were colonized by the Dutch for three centuries. From 1835, the Dutch took Indonesian craftsman to the Netherlands to teach Dutch workers in factories how to create batiks.
In 1846, Vlisco founder Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen, mechanized the distinctive wax-printing method used to make batiks. Yet the history of batiks goes even further - according to the Batik Guild, early examples have been found in Asia from over 2000 years ago.
My mother loves my dresses. Our house was always full of colourful cloths growing up. Every time I put them on she wants to take pictures. But I'm hesitant.
I am aware when I wear my dresses, which for me are each a personal connection to the place they were made, that if someone shares a picture they are vulnerable to accusations of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation, or misappropriation, as a sociological concept is distinguished from cultural exchange by the presence of an imbalance of power. There is usually a colonial aspect to this, although this is not a simple definition. Somehow, white North Americans seem to have erased the fact that they are a 'success story' of colonialism – having committed a genocide of the Native American peoples.
So, who do these cloths belong to? The Indonesian people whose method it is? The Dutch people who have been making them for 150 years and brought them to Africa? The African tailors who use them to craft magnificent designs? It matters - showing respect for people's culture. But in this case, whose culture is it?
I am a white South African, with Afrikaans and British heritage. I clearly fall into the category of the historically dominant group, with ties to the colonial project. I strongly identify as African - yet Ryszard Kapuscinski was right when he wrote that "The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say 'Africa'. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”
The story of this cloth is an essentially African one not because when people see it they call it African. Instead, it is an African story, because it is complex and saturated with contradiction.