In celebration of Black History Month, through the month of February All the Pretty Birds will be sharing stories and inspiration of black people’s relationship to fashion around the world, in an effort to inform and unify our community.
Part 2: Dutch Wax Prints
In the 1600s, the Dutch Empire was aggressively colonizing every piece of land they could reach in the name of establishing trade ports to lay claim to regional indigenous resources. This is the era when, in earnest, Europeans began to sincerely disturb and subsequently reshape the futures of each of the territories they invaded. The process was violent and oppressive, and if you ever seek to understand the origins of the socio-political strife in many former European colonies, a great piece of the puzzle is understanding how the local cultures were impacted by the arrival of imperialists.
One of the ways that colonization changed each of these cultures was the sudden intermingling of information and resources from different cultures that were suddenly under the same rule. Wherever Dutch troops set up colonies, an exchange of information was created amongst their network between South and East Asia, Africa, and South America, linking and dispersing elements of thousands of different and distant cultures.
Over the past few hundred years, the precedent for cultural robbery and information sharing established by the Dutch has resulted in our globalized present-day expectations of rapid information and resource exchange. There are also other, older ways that evidence of the early days of this cultural exchange lingers. One of them is the Dutch Wax Print, also known as Ankara.
The Dutch colonized the shores of the continent of Africa in tandem with their takeover of Indonesia. Both of these places have rich, ancient traditions of expression through dress and color, though obviously in very different ways. In West Africa, home of the bogolanfini and woven kente cloth, personal dress is a meaningful way of relaying community status, storytelling, and celebration. In Southeast Asia, Javanese had been making and wearing batik, a method of reductively dyeing woven cloth to create intricate designs, since time immemorial.
And as the Dutch continued to colonize, they coopted and sold the resources and crafts of the regions they colonized. Eager to capitalize on the demand created in both Holland and the colonies, the Dutch developed a method of machinating the normally handmade batik in order to produce more material faster, and began producing mass quantities of batik in Holland. No one need wonder whether the ancient culture from whom this method was learned was compensated accordingly, because they surely were not.
In the process of shipping these coopted goods around the world, the Dutch brought their batik to West Africa in the 1800s, where the instantly popular fabrics were adapted to the now internationally recognizable Dutch Wax Print, also known as Ankara. Similar to Indonesian batik only in theory, these wax prints were developed in patterns that tell stories and communicate messages local to the new markets that were developing throughout Africa.
Obaapa, print by Vlisco. Obaapa means “A Good Woman”, and indicates the wearer wants to be a good woman for her husband.
In the mid-1900s, an automation to the Dutch production was developed that made Dutch Wax Prints more accessible, and so they became a staple of West African dress. Today there are thousands of patterns, and even as globalization has changed the fashion markets across Africa, new prints are regularly developed and Ankara remains popular. One of the textile companies originally responsible for appropriating batik and introducing this fabric to the rest of the world, Vlisco, is still in business today, and largely dominates the high end wax print market.
However, without the design influence of African iconography and storytelling, these fabrics would never have become the vivid and vibrant expressions we know so well today. The communication, the colors, and the anecdotes are all indisputably West African – so much so, in fact, that many people are completely unaware that Ankara did not originate in Africa in the first place.
Love Bomb, print by Vlisco. This print is meant to depict the state of mind of a woman who has discovered her husband is cheating on her.
Michelle Obama’s Bag, print by Vlisco. This print depicts the handbag First Lady Obama carried while disembarking the plane on her first trip to Africa.
These and other African prints also became popular fashion in the U.S. during the rise of Afrocentrism that followed the Civil Rights Movement through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, and remain an incredibly important visual in the telling of the African diaspora – particularly when you are aware of their inextricable ties to colonialism. But now, whether they are sewn into a traditional kaba and slit or reimagined by young designers into more modern interpretations, Ankara should be considered nothing other than proudly African.
Tribe Called Quest, source: A Tribe Called Quest