Updated: Feb 27, 2019
What I love about the holidays is having time away from my day job to just relax and do what I want. So naturally, my vacation has been filled with reading, binge-watching Netflix, writing fashion articles, and planning out my life for 2019 (God help me!). One thing I really wanted to do was head to the museum to check out an exhibition I’d been trying to see for a couple of months called African Print Fashion Now!
Featuring the work of numerous African photographers, artists and fashion designers, the exhibit showcases the colorful clothes and fabrics that have become associated with African people and those of the diaspora (black people all over the world). “African print” itself has become an umbrella term encompassing multiple types of printed fabric originating from the many different regions and ethnic groups of Africa. These fabrics include adire & aso oke (Yoruba people of Nigeria), kente (Ashanti people of Ghana), akwete (Igbo people of Nigeria) and many others. Similar to how Americans use clothing to symbolize status through the brands we wear, the intricate weave of African fabrics serve the same purpose. The various patterns and colors one wears can speak to their tribe of origin, marital status, family history, profession and so much more.
The show focuses on one type of cloth in particular called Ankara, more commonly referred to as “African wax” or “Dutch wax print" and is tied to various peoples in West Africa. Interestingly enough these fabrics aren’t even traditionally African being that they did not start with African people and have been largely produced by Europe textile companies since their introduction in the 1840s. The Netherlands based company Vlisco was one of the world's first mass producers of wax print fabric and remains the largest to this day. So, how did all of this even happen? Well, Vlisco initially started in the business of printing traditional Indonesian wax print called batik for people living in the Indonesian colonies established by Dutch settlers. The fabrics featured traditional Indonesian designs and quickly became popular with Ghanian soldiers who were serving in the Dutch Army. When these soldiers returned to their native Africa they brought with them the batik fabrics and Vlisco shifted their focus to producing almost exclusively for the West African market.
Designs from the show blend traditional African fabrics with modern silhouettes.
I’ll admit, I was kind of upset that the colorful fabrics patterns and motifs that I so closely associated with Africa were initially a product of colonialism, especially since there already existed a rich history of fabric making all across the continent. But, what I admire is how African people have weaved this once foreign fabric into their cultural heritage making it completely their own. And now, in recent years with the sheer global impact of social media, these traditional fabrics are now considered a fashion staple all over the world. African designers like Gilles Touré, Ikiré Jones and Titi Ademola blend modern silhouettes with traditional fabrics creating a fresh take on fashion that is distinctly African, while musicians like Jidenna and Blitz The Ambassador incorporate Ankara into their wardrobe both on stage and off as an homage to their African lineage (Nigerian and Ghanian respectively).
From models walking the runways of Paris, to celebrities on the red carpet and your favorite streetwear blogger (me, of course), the African influence on fashion is here to stay!