While we have seen “African” prints everywhere and they have become symbolic of “African” fashion and “African” culture the history of the famous “African” print fabric is one that’s laced with colonialism and erasure.
The so-called African print fabrics are actually made by a Dutch company called Vlisco. Located in Helmond, the Netherlands, Vlisco boasts that it has made over 350,000 unique designs since its founding in 1846. On its website, Vlisco claims that their designs are “inspired by Africa, made with a technique derived from Indonesian Batik, [and] designed in the Netherlands.” Nonetheless, what Vlisco forgets to point out is how they were able to acquire such a monopoly on creating designs that have now come to represent a whole continent.
The Dutch wax print fabric was actually intended to disrupt the local Indonesian Batik market by flooding Indonesia with cheap, mass-produced imitations of Batik. To the demise of the Dutch, the fabrics weren’t well-received by Indonesians, and as the Dutch slave traders headed for West African ports, these fabrics were more widely received. Thus began the decline of the uniqueness and independence of the local West African textile identity. Dutch wax print does not belong to or represent any specific African community — it is a European imposed, blanket identity for the continent.
Meanwhile, among the Yoruba peoples in Southwest Nigeria, Adire textile dyeing is a source of identity and uniqueness that can be traced to the 11th century. Adire is a form of tie and dye, using indigo dye, where the cloth can be dyed up to 25 times to create unique designs and patterns. As entrepreneurial youngsters break into Lagos’ fashion industry, brands such as Maki Oh are bringing Adire art and fashion into the luxury market.
In fact, Michelle Obama has been spotted wearing a locally sourced, designed, and unique Adire outfit that can actually be associated with the historical, artistic roots of the continent, as opposed to a mass produced European construct of the continent. Lupita Nyongo and Solange also wore an Adire piece made by Maki Oh.
Ultimately, it is important to understand the historical connections and decisions that have produced certain stereotypes and created identities that may not necessarily reflect their truth. The famous “African” print fabric that has come to define the continent for over 200 years is indeed a European construct of the African peoples; by controlling their identity with such a statement fabric, the world has erased the local textile originality that actually defines these cultures.