A Worldly Fabric

From the Collections posts

Vibrant, wax-printed cotton fabrics like the one pictured below have been displayed and sold in the markets of West and Central Africa for generations. Highly sought-after as luxury goods, the textiles may seem quintessentially African to Western eyes, but in fact these dizzyingly intricate double-sided patterns reflect a complex history of cultural, colonial, and commercial interactions.

The "V8" featured prominently in the wax-print textile shown here, named "8 Bougies" or eight spark plugs, is a reference to a powerful and expensive automobile.

AMNH/D.Finnin


The market for these spectacular fabrics got its start in the 19th century, when beautifully patterned Javanese batik textiles made their way to Africa, brought first through Christian missionaries and later by West African soldiers who carried batik home as gifts from the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

Dutch manufacturers operating in Asia had been experimenting with handmade and machine-made prints similar to batik for years and seized on the wax prints' popularity, adapting the production process and designs for the African market and establishing a lucrative industry in the process. Competitors from England, France, and China, among others, joined in the fray, although none achieved the sales or status enjoyed by Dutch producers.

Fittingly for a luxury good, fabric patterns often include elements that signal affluence and cosmopolitan taste. The "V8" featured prominently in the textile shown here, named "8 Bougies" or eight spark plugs, is a reference to a powerful and expensive automobile. The fabric was designed and produced in 2011 by the world's leading producer of premium wax-print fabric, a Dutch company called Vlisco, which was founded in 1846.

Today such textiles are sold throughout Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and neighboring countries, where tailors transform brightly colored bolts of cloth into elaborate outfits. Manufacturers consult local vendors and consumers to develop textile designs, which range from abstract patterns to nature subjects to motifs that reflect such everyday objects as bathtubs, table fans, and keys, all marks of modernity.

And while African buyers dominate the market for wax-print fabrics, major international fashion houses and retailers have begun to feature similar textiles in dresses, suits, handbags, and even upholstered furniture. Burberry, agnés b., and H&Ms Marni collection are among the labels to embrace the bold prints for worldwide distribution.

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.