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.