African print dresses

The fabric industry in Africa goes as far back as 5000BC. In some of the earliest examples of designs made in Africa, the ancient Egyptians would weave linen out of flax. Pottery from archaeology digs in Badari depicts a loom from that same period and imagery from some of the greatest Egyptian kings shows weavers using looms.

The Nubians farther south of Africa also had an active textile industry that is portrayed in the pyramids of Meroe. These are the truly African print dresses that were designed and made in Africa however another kind of tribal print commonly known as African print is making waves in the fashion industries across the world. They’ve been appropriated for ottoman covers, summer suits and Gwen Stefani has used the design to make some tiny African print skirts.

Their distinct look is made up of a mixture of bright colours that clash with each other and can sometimes be hard to look at. They make Hawaiian print look bland. Fashion houses and mainstream media have taken to calling them African print dresses or tribal print but that does not tell the whole story of the origins of these beautiful designs. Africa is a large place. Surely the history of this colourful design can be narrowed down to a smaller geographical location.

The Origins of African Print Dresses

The patterns of African print were actually based on Dutch designs produced for West Africa early in the 19th century. There was a popular technique for making clothes in the East Indies which used the application of wax to a cloth and then applying dye over the wax to create patterns. The clothing made in this style was known as batik. West African men in the area at the time took such a liking to batik that they sent it home to their families.

Legend has it that when these men made it back to their homelands after 15 year tours of service they would return home with trunks full of Javanese batik of the highest quality. A woman’s love for fine threads was as strong now as it was then so they must have been welcomed home as heroes.

The Europeans realized that they were sitting on a potential goldmine and started to produce their own versions of batik, hoping to overrun the market in the East Indies with their versions at lower prices. A Belgian printer eventually developed a way of using a machine to apply the wax to both sides of the cloth and became the pioneer for machine-made tribal print.

Unfortunately for them the imitation was not of the same quality as the hand-made batik from the East Indies. The machine-made imitations developed a series of imperfections caused by the resin cracking which resulted in the dye seeping through. The East Indians rejected these low quality batiks and chose to buy their own more expensive and higher quality versions. The Dutch manufacturers accepted that they were not going to penetrate the East Indies market for batiks and shifted their sales to West Africa instead.

The West Africans welcomed the Dutch batik clothing, imperfections and all. In fact they quite liked the imperfections because it meant that every piece of clothing was unique. The Dutch manufacturers eventually fixed the problem that was causing the imperfections but decided to program them into the printing process anyway.

Europeans continued to sell this cloth to West Africans, primarily to women who considered the batik clothing as a mark of high social status. West African fashion trends started to influence the tastes of their neighbours and their designs went on to gain popularity in the surrounding areas.

The Different Designs of African Print Clothing and Their Meanings

The local traders grew to favour the fabrics with brighter colours and geometric shapes. The manufacturers designed new patterns to reflect this. The West Africans developed their own names for the fabrics to reflect some of their cultural sayings. This was their way of making the foreign-made designs their own. This is how the machine-made fabric manufactured by the Dutch and inspired by the East Indies came to be regarded as an African fashion icon. The irony of the situation is that in places like Togo and Ghana, African print clothing is considered international.

The different fabrics have different names with specific meanings. Some of them have birds which are symbolic of how money flies where wherever it wants to and if it is not managed well, it will fly away from you. The print of a tortoise’s shell is indicative of a wearer who protects what is hers and is resilient enough to weather any storm.

Stool is a yellow pattern with squares and patches. Put simple it means “If you want to talk about me, take a stool and sit down”. West African proverbs tend to portray deeper meaning with a hint of humour and ‘stool’ is a great example of that.

African Print dresses and Modern Fashion Trends

The Western wold considers the African print dresses to be uniquely African but people in West Africa who buy the cloth to be tailored into suits and dresses have no doubt about its international origins. They even go out of their way to buy European made cloth when the same versions are available from local or even Chinese producers.

Vlisco, one of the last remaining European manufacturers of African print clothing is making a large profit on the emerging market. They do a lot of work with fashion designers and move to squash any attempts at copyright infringements immediately. The only threat that they face in the market comes from Chinese knock-offs that are sold sell primarily to West Africa and even though the West African market considers the Chinese productions to be low-quality copies because they are usually only printed one side but they offer an alternative for those who are not able to afford the Vlisco versions.

Vlisco have been making African print clothing since 1846 and were not going to allow imitations to take their market share which is ironic when you consider that they themselves started off as imitations. They changed their marketing strategy to producing 20 new designs each month. This keeps them ahead of the Chinese manufacturers because the printers in China typically take up to 3 months for their products to reach the market. This means that the Chinese are always playing catch-up.

Due to many different companies manufacturing and sourcing African fabrics, the trend in African print dresses is steadily rising to a global scale; very soon African print clothing will become a staple of everyone’s wardrobe.

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