What is This About African Prints Not Being African?

What is African Fashion? What is the definition of an African attire? What makes a style African? Is it the fabric or the one wearing the fabric? These and a plethora of other questions are a constant mania in the African Fashion turf. And there’s also this age-long argument about who really owns the African fabric (these are mostly colorful fabrics primarily associated with Africa because of its African-like patterns and motifs).
2011 VLISCONouvelle Histoire Campaign - Photo Source: BellaNaija.com


The African fabric has been called different names depending on where it is made. This cotton fabric with vibrant patterns is known as Dutch wax-prints to some, African wax-prints to others; Holland wax-prints and Java prints are also popular names it goes by. As said earlier, it seems to be a war of names depending on the where it is made.

According to findings, what we now know as African fabric designs were originally developed in an attempt to imitate batik prints from Indonesia. The popularity of these prints in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia spiked tremendously in the late 1800s, and the Dutch (which is why they are sometimes called Dutch wax-print) in an attempt to penetrate the market began to manufacture fabrics that looked like the batiks from Indonesia, attempting to sell the fabric in Southeast Asia and take over the market from the local manufacturers of the fabric there. However, this plan failed as the Dutch-made batiks were perceived to be of lower quality than the locally made ones. And that was how the Dutch wax-print(or whatever you choose to call it) came to find a home in Africa.

Indonesia Batik - Photo Source: Bilaterals.org


Quite evident is the fact that the makers of the fabric never intended it to serve the African market the way it now does, but they were definitely stoked about the acceptance, and with time made the necessary modifications to further give room for penetration on a larger scale. These wax-prints have over time come to reflect the African heritage, becoming more and more tailored to reflect the African ways and style, and there would be no doubt that what we have now is truly African, defining and beautifying the notion of African Fashion itself; and so it doesn’t come as a shock to see it adopted worldwide appearing in various forms and fashion enclaves. We have had different celebrities from all over the world sporting the African fabric in spectacular ways.

Getty Images Solange Knowles in African Print Dress
Solange Knowles, American singer and songwriter in African print dress - Photo Source - Getty Images


Kim Kardashian in African Print Dress
Kim Kardashian West, American reality television personality in African print dress - Photo Source: Pinterest


And so this gives rise to the question of whether the African fabric which has now become a global commodity and fashion essential can no longer be said to be wholly African, when it is quite evident that what we now call the African fabric was not in the grand scheme of things when the original makers set out to produce their versions of the Indonesia Batik that went downhill. It goes further to examine if non-Africans can lay claims to the African fabric knowing full well that it has over time evolved to what it is from its constant interaction with the African culture and that the African fabric we have now is highly influenced by our general style and living patterns.

Colorful Maroccan tajine pots at a souk in Marrakech - Stock image
Colorful Moroccan Pots - Photo Source: IstockPhoto


However, in defense of the other side, one wonders if we can disregard the contributions of the producers and assert that what we now have is all ours. And can we really claim to own the African fabric knowing that a slight interlude in production would affect our consumption and style immensely? Can we go on to detach ourselves from the original masterminds knowing that we rely majorly on them for what we wear and as a group of people, we have now come to be identified with these fabrics?

Ankara fabric on a roll - PhotoSource: Infogger.com

A careful analysis of the different schools of thought will throw the light on a few things and one would realize that it is not too hard to understand the premise of each viewpoint. And so, we believe it is safe to say that though the African fabric cannot be dissociated from the African culture/people, its genesis was not originally and wholly African. That what started out as a mass-produced imitation of the Indonesian batik has now become mainstream in our continent today; it has now become a means of identification, a symbol of traditional significance and a pertinent fashion statement that cannot be erased or played down.

Woman carrying decorative pillows made with African print fabrics - Photo Source: Pinterest
Decorative pillows made with African print fabrics - Photo Source: Pinterest

At such, we believe that it wouldn’t be implausible to assert that - there is no such thing as the African fabric without the African. One would also agree that there would be no African fashion without these fabrics we hopelessly import.



About the author: Modupe Ogundare is a creative writer who enjoys writing about the everyday life. When she’s not at her job as a digital strategist where she ensures her business clients are advantaged by her copy and marketing writing skills, she’s honing her skills on persuasive storytelling and photography. She volunteers on a few platforms and contributes for BellaNaija. She can't imagine a world without crepes and coke. She can be also be found on Medium


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