Friday, 29 November 2013

A Short History of Wax Print in West Africa: Authentic African Fabric?

The first time I came to West Africa was 2007. Motivated by the desire to learn French and drawn by the cheap cost of living, I chose Senegal as my destination and like many foreigners who arrive in this vibrant country I was immediately intrigued by the dynamism and energy of the capital city, Dakar. What struck me most was the incredible way Senegalese women and men wore colours and prints – and remember this was pre-Solange and before ‘print on print’ was even a thing. The more time I spent in West Africa, namely in Senegal and Ghana, the more I learnt about the diverse range of textiles available here and about their varying levels of  authenticity – whilst many of the popular fabrics worn here are African, most are not – but does that make them any less authentic as symbols of West African culture?

Considering that wax prints are emerging steadily in mainstream fashion with icons such as Beyonce and Gwen Stefani wearing them regularly, and haute couture labels like Burberry Prorsum featuring them heavily in their recent collections, the question of where these ‘African Wax Prints’, as they are so often described, originated from is super important, and reveals a long and fascinating history.

L-R: Lady Gaga, Anna Wintour, Kate Bosworth and Solange Knowles all in Burberry Prorsum SS 2012   [Image Credit:]

Let’s go back a bit first.

Contrary to popular belief, the modern wax print fabric you can find in any West African market is not originally African. It was brought to the continent at the beginning of the 19th   century by the Dutch, who had learnt the wax printing technique from their colonies in Indonesia. Batik is a technique of wax-resist dying, where wax is applied to cloth which is then dyed over to create a pattern.

No one is really sure just how wax print fabric ended up in West Africa – some argue the Dutch tried to produce and sell it in Indonesia but were unable to compete with local manufacturers so they brought it to West Africa and its bright motifs and colours proved popular, others claim it was brought here by West African soldiers who were indentured in Indonesia and returned to West Africa with armfuls of batik as gifts for their families. Either way, wax print has been present and increasingly popular in Africa since the early 1800s.

Since its arrival in West Africa, wax print fabric has become distinctively African.  West African women took quickly to the fabric being sold by the Dutch in the 19th century, and soon began naming the motifs and patterns giving them new meanings and relevance to the African market and as such claiming the fabric as their own. The main creators of the wax print fabric remain European – namely Dutch, but with the growing fabric industries in India, China and Bangladesh, fabric made in these countries has been infiltrating the West African fabric market over the past ten years or so. Whilst this makes wax print more accessible to all customers as Asian made wax retails for a lot less than its Dutch-made counterpart, it has also pushed a lot of African-based wax print producers out of business (we’ll go over this in more detail in a forthcoming another blog post – stay tuned!)

Today, wax print is still as relevant and as popular as ever in West Africa. Despite its foreign origins, and often its foreign production, wax print fabric is decidedly African and synonymous with modern style and contemporary African fashion, particularly amongst the younger generations of West Africans – at least the ones that I know!

[Image credit:]

Over the past few months, the Madame Tay team have been collaborating closely with West African designers, tailors and textile industry professionals to source a beautiful range of fabric and produce a range of contemporary pieces made from wax print (both African and otherwise!). We have been learning a lot about the textiles we buy, where they came from and what they mean. We’ll been sharing all of this and more on the blog – so keep reading!

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of wax print textiles in West Africa, I’d recommend having a look at these sites;

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