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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
insulting.

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.

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105 Comments

  1. apple

    white peopel stay cultural appropriation every thing they can find.. first the asians, then native americans, now us

    my culture is not a trend

    • arlette

      thank you! jeez i am fed up of this. our culture is not a trend, its not something i feel that they even look good in. why if they wanted to do his cant they hire only black models?

    • Yeahright2011

      Blacks in the 60/70′s did the same; chose whichever elements of the few ethnic groups in Africa they came in contact they liked and created a perverted bastard culture of sorts, it was unsuccessful. In fact we have a nasty habit of co-opting culture/achievements of other black nationalities. Can’t say its just whites.

    • QoNewC

      @apple
      @arlette

      Please dont go there. We all borrow from each other and thats the way it should be.

    • apple

      its one thing to borrow its another to steal the work of an indigenous group then exploit it and get all the credit while de-voiding all original meaning, and i’m sick of white people (especially hipsters) doing this to other groups. white people go vacation to see africa or some other poor land to jack all their threads to sell at 1500 dollars a pop.while giving nothing back to the originals

      once against my culture is not a trend

    • QCastle

      @apple

      Which indigenous people are you talking about? Indigenous should not be a short hand for non white. White folks are indigenous to Europe like blacks are to Africa. Who decides what is borrowing and stealing? Its an inspired look. Get off your high horse girl.

    • Jasmine T.

      True, I feel that if you are going to make money off of exploiting a cultures ”fashion” sense, then you should also pay them (in a way that is appropriate for them) for the ideas that you are using. Out of respect.

    • apple

      when i say indigenous i mean the originals
      at least if your going to jack people threads give them the credit or hire them or honor its meaning instead of erasing it, i’m not on a high horse because i want people to be paid for their originality, if i am this kick rocks i dont give a f**k, respect people’s culture

  2. chi9ja

    I actually don’t have anything against these fabrics, its good we have the hard cotton *original* African fabric. But leaving it like that is restricting and limiting our fashion and style growth. What i am actually upset about is the fact that “it seems like” they got the ball rolling on the idea before us, not good, not good at all.

  3. I talk about this in my play and I call out non-Nigerians (not just white people! hint) for calling my traditional wear “tribal” and ‘exotic” and “so hot right now” without giving credit. It’s not difficult to obtain knowledge about a culture. I think it’s a little bit of laziness, a lot of greed, and big dose of blindness.

  4. QoNewC

    I think its a great idea. Maybe this will create a larger market for African textiles, designers, and stylist. I would wear all that stuff though I prefer block colors. We dont live on an island and we take and give to different people in different places all the time. I think we need to see more cultural fusion.

    • Bisous

      That WOULD be great, but alot of the groups they take the concept from don’t see any money from the designs. They don’t even hire experienced African textile makers to create the garments. Alot of the original patterns have deeply spiritual or cultural meaning behind them, but these designers don’t even bother to credit them. If they wanted the could buy the textiles from the source putting money in the hands of the true originators and affording them another source of commerce. It’s just another case of pimping as far as I’m concerned…

    • QCastle

      @Bisous

      Not sure who exactly should receive royalties for these prints. Its a ridiculous notion. These designers dont need to hire Africans. There isnt some special magic African designers can bring. What will happen is these prints and patterns will be in style and Africans who do sell these fabrics and prints in their shops will benefit from their speciality being a hit item. It isnt that dam serious.

      I cant really deal with yet another reason to be angry at white folks. Its boring.

    • CurlySue

      I’m not sure how it would be possible to pay anyone for these designs. They weren’t created by one person, fashion house, or even one specific culture (as Africa is a huge and diverse continent). I mean, should rappers start paying hipsters for appropriating their love of skinny jeans? Or should Nicki Minaj pay Japan for her love of Harajuku culture? No one culture is more precious or sacred than another. If I do have to begin paying every culture that I’ve ever worn clothes inspired by, I’d be broke! How much DO I owe the ancient Greeks for those toga parties I went to in college?

    • Bisous

      When did I make this a case about being mad at white people?Also I am very well aware that Africa is varied and quite diverse and I’m not attributing these quips to the entire continent. However a vast majority of people think Africa still consists of tribes and poverty stricken people. They are at fault, as I’m sure you know.
      Many of these design’s (even though they are bastardized watered down versions) CAN be traced. Like I said before most of them have intrinsic value, spiritual value and economic value and aren’t just for the sake of looking “chic”. They do have and impact on those who originally made them to wear, but these designers have no concern about that. I’m glad people think these designs are beautiful because they are, but I would like the people who are the source of “inspiration” for these collections to be recognized or given some sort of compensation. This isn’t an homage, it’s making a quick buck off of someone’s culture, religion and identity.

    • @ Bisous,

      where is the love button, for your last comment?! LOVE IT!

    • Mikashawn

      “What will happen is these prints and patterns will be in style and Africans who do sell these fabrics and prints in their shops will benefit from their speciality being a hit item. It isnt that dam serious.

      I cant really deal with yet another reason to be angry at white folks. Its boring.”

      @Q
      What’s funny is that you actually think the Africans who originated the prints with benefit at all. If that was a possibility, don’t you think they would’ve by now? So there’s a trademark office that makes sure that artists work is credited and paid for appropriately? There are lawyers that will sue designers who steal these designs? Guess what – white designers reproduce the designs because they can and who is going to stop them. You? It’s highway robbery and yes, we should be mad that white people get away with robbing yet another thing from Africa and its heritage.

  5. sodabread

    Y’know that Marc Jacobs jumpsuit featured on the thumbnail?!
    well 2 yrs ago my family flew to Nigeria for my Grandfather’s wake and my mum asked me to give some thumbnails to the seamstress so she’d create an outfit using the same shape but using our cloth….
    Needless to say I felt very satisfied copying the jumpsuit shape but using our Holland Wax print it cost a fraction of the price if I bought the original Marc Jacobs outfit! :)
    I can’t wait til til it gets warmer so I can wear it again!

    • Georgia

      “Holland,” as in Dutch, as in colonizers, as in fabric that was originally exported to Africa and though made popular there, isn’t “African” fabric. As the author notes, these days a lot of it is made in Indonesia. Check out the work of Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/yinka_shonibare_mbe/how_to_blow_up_two_heads.php), who created pieces using this fabric dealing with these very issues of colonization/appropriation. So now European and American designers are co-opting these fabrics/designs. This one is an issue of cultural appropriation on the part of all concerned.

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