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White Customers, Black Fabrics

  • August 06, 2020

Vlisco, a Dutch fabric company established in the Netherlands in 1846, designed and produced cloth sold all over West Africa. Today it continues to design many of the most popular fabrics sold in the region, though the cloth itself is named and given its particular cultural significance by local women.

Even dashiki tops, as popularized in the United States in the late 1960s, were styled from Vlisco’s Angelina print, which in turn was taken from a longstanding West African tunic design.

For centuries, patterns have been a way to communicate without saying a word, and it can be jarring for some to see these designs worn without regard to their original messages. (Some of the cloth used now for shorts, halter dresses and jumpsuits holds specific meaning in Nigeria or Ghana, where it may signal that one is pregnant, newly married or mourning a relative.) But others say there is no way to stop cultural innovation.

“There is a time to say you want to wear something because you look really good in it, and you like it,” said Paulette Young, the director of the Young Robertson Gallery in New York, which specializes in the visual arts of Africa. “And that’s OK, too.” Ms. Young wrote her dissertation on the Dutch origins of African wax fabrics.

Scot Brown, an associate professor at U.C.L.A. and a historian of African-American social movements and popular culture, is not worried about whether ankara print will lose its significance for the African-American community if it goes mainstream. Though he loves his D’iyanu blazers, he sees the innovative use of this print for Western business clothes as another sign that African fashion will constantly evolve and adapt to changing conditions.

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