An ode to African print

I grew up around it as most Africans did-more especially West, East and Southern Africans. African print is the very definition of tradition for us. We wear it to weddings, to church, to show which tribe/country we come from and sometimes to showcase our wealth.  The African print is us.

I trust, like me, you will be surprised to find that African fabric/print isn’t really “African”…..

It has a bevy of names including Dutch wax print, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais, Kente cloth and Ankara. The fabric started out as a cheap mass-produced imitation of Indonesian batik locally produced in Java.

Indonesian Batik fabric

The spread of the cheap imitation (Dutch wax print) is mainly attributed to the Dutch and the English. After being colonized by the Dutch, Javanese batik was introduced to Holland and consequently to other parts of Europe but did not gain popularity. However when it was brought to West Africa along the trade route during the 1800’s it gained a foothold in the African markets. As they were spread and assimilated through African culture they gradually became what they are today: as a symbol of tradition, wealth and identity. Overtime the design motifs changed to reflect the local African culture. For example, it is not uncommon to see African fabric/print that uses presidents faces as a motif. Often in Malawi fabrics like that are worn to show support for a particular president or campaigning president. I remember having a Kamuzu (1st president of Malawi) print cloth when I was a child.

Most wax prints sold in Africa were being produced in Europe up till the 1960s. Post-colonially however more and more African countries began producing the prints on their own. Malawi for example has David Whitehead and Sons that produce “Malawian” print fabrics. The high end fabrics (Dutch print- labels include Vlisco) are used to make dresses, head wraps and elaborate outfits. The cheaper fabrics are used to make table cloths, aprons, kitenges/chitenjes etc.

Tourists wearing chitenjes/kitenges

African print wasn’t something I considered hip when I was younger. It was something older women wore and I couldn’t see myself wearing the elaborate designs that most of them were made into. However the fashion world has given the African print a makeover and made it more attractive for the younger generation. L.A.M.B, Lisa Spring, Burberry and Boxing Kitten are just a few of the designers that have gone Afro-print crazy in the past few years.

Celebrities wearing African print clothing

With such vibrant colors and patterns, what’s not to love? Even though it wasn’t originally ours, we adopted it and made it werk! Now that print is synonymous with Africa. I recently got my first African print dress made by Di-Monde Reign (A local designer). I wasn’t sure about the bright orange part of the dress at first but I love it now. My friend, cousin and I went Afro-print crazy for a wedding we attended, picture below:

(L-R) Me, my friend Fafa and my cousin Karen

Having already amassed a small collection of African print head scarves, I am well on my way to reaching obsession levels with African print. Because it is usually sold as a piece of fabric, it gives you so much design freedom. You can be guaranteed to have unique African print clothing because rarely no two people will design the same exact outfit.

My African print head scarves

I especially love it because it celebrates being African. We spend so much time dressing like other cultures so it’s nice to be able to still be considered fashionable when wearing your own cultural material.

Side note: If you want to know more about the origins of African fabric check out the following blogs: Congo Story, Beyond Victoriana and African Fabrics.

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