Close your eyes, fast forward to summer and imagine how it’s going to feel, being able to go about our daily business, see family and friends and wear actual, real life outfits again. Now hold that picture in your mind and let’s look at how, with this year’s ‘African Clash’ trend, African prints are once again prominent.
As a little girl, I remember the awe I felt, looking at pictures of my mum’s beautiful, handmade wedding dress and the additional awe felt when, a few years ago, she gifted me another dress that she’d made when she came to the UK, with fabric brought over from Kenya. My love affair with African prints has spanned decades and helps to serve as a connection to my roots. From dresses to dashikis, head wraps to home furnishings, I can’t get enough of them. An obsession seemingly shared by the rest of the world.
First up, Ankara fabric. Although now widely recognised as African wax print, its origins are actually spread out around the globe with its initial roots being in Indonesian batik. (face2faceafrica.com) One theory is that, in the 19th century, west African slaves and soldiers brought in to serve in the Dutch army during the colonisation of Indonesia, took a shine to the fabrics and brought them back to their motherland.
At this time, a Dutch printer developed a way of manufacturing machine-made Ankara. (Wikipedia.org) Although effective, problems during the process resulted in a crackled effect. Indonesia was unimpressed with this ‘faulty’ fabric but west Africa embraced the individuality of it. It meant that no two fabrics were the same and, to this day, these ‘imperfections’ are still included in the manufacturing process. (oludan.com)
Worn as a symbol of status, by the mid 20th century Ankara was fully integrated to and ‘owned’ by Africa.
Another favourite is Kente cloth. Like Ankara, it was an indication of status with its roots in west Africa, specifically Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Togo. There are various theories about how it came to be, one being that in 1697 Ashanti King Osei Tutu requested that his weavers journey to the Ivory Coast to learn the craft of making Kente cloth by sewing narrow, woven strips together and, upon their return, they made garments especially for the king. (kitengestore.com)
My favourite theory (face2faceafrica.com) is a legend passed down through generations that two brothers were inspired to create the cloth by watching a spider making a web! The Spider being a sacred creature in African lore (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcKelcbas9s).
Though both these fabrics were initially worn by royalty (smarthistory.org) or people of social standing, they were then widely used by many Africans for special occasions and now the prints have firmly made their mark around the world, proving that they are never out of fashion.
Cultural expression, in the form of art and design found in fashion, is being embarrassed, remixed and reformatted for today’s generations. A means of identifying with rich, yet much denied, histories and cultures that mean so much to so many across the globe.
Year after year they make an appearance on the catwalks and 2020 is no different. Enter ‘African Clash’. (patternbank.com) It does exactly what it says on the tin; larger than life African patterns, mixed with bold florals, geometric designs and ALL the colour.
Cultural appropriation, copying, homage, patronage; whatever the motive by the larger fashion houses and fabric design studios, the core, driving factor is beauty and form appreciated by consumers. Hopefully without stigma or fear of appearing too garish, loud or some kind of political movement.
Roll on summer freedom when we can get outside and give these fabrics the attention they deserve! Wear them loud, proud and with your chest held high!