Africa In Vogue: The Exploitative Practice of Selling Culture

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Africa is in vogue. Again. African print clothing and accessories are re-emerging so rapidly, it’s somewhat difficult to believe the vibrant patterns and colors weren’t always so popular.

Several are credited with bringing African-inspired clothing into the commercial fashion spotlight. Algerian-born fashion legend, Yves Saint Laurent is probably the most renowned among them, as the first to design African-inspired clothing for the runway. Laurent’s 1967 African Collection and his collaboration with supermodel Iman in his African Queen collection, are considered fashion landmarks.

Laurent’s vision influenced many designers to “explore” Africa as a source for fashion ideas, to use darker-skin models in their campaigns and to consider the commodification of African culture and style to sell clothing.

Today, the commercial success of African-inspired clothing is evident in its accessibility. Lovers of African-inspired fashion don’t have to break the bank to incorporate the various styles into their wardrobes. You can go to Target. You can go to Forever21. You can go to your best homegirl’s closet.

But how does it get into that closet? What are the roots of so-called African prints and what has enabled their exportation into the American and European fashion scenes?

Until recently, I never considered the origins of “African” prints to be from anywhere other than Africa and specifically, West Africa. I, like many people, believed that African prints came out of Africa and into Europe through trade and colonization. I assumed the export of African fabrics into the Americas were not only the result of a similar history, but largely due to two realities: African immigration to the U.S. and the reappropriation of prints by Black Americans.

Recent events however, inspired me to do some research on the historical origins of African prints. Specifically the recent, “African Queen” spread in the March 2013 issue of the French fashion magazine Numero caught my attention. In the spread, 16-year-old white model Ondria Hardin is depicted not only in blackface, but also in blackbody and dressed in African-inspired clothing.

As one offended commenter, Kay Clarke wrote in response on Facebook, “This is offensive and it is done in poor taste. It’s sending the message that ‘We celebrate African beauty…..just without any Africans’”

The "African Queen" spread and the astute observation that Clarke shares speak to the commodification of African cultures for Western consumption. As a result, I began thinking about the relationship between selling culture via African prints, African-inspired fashion and the Western perception of cultural authenticity.

I was surprised to learn that these prints are not, in fact, African in origin. Thus, there is a disconnect between perceptions of their African authenticity and their reality. The prevailing theory argues that the Dutch are responsible for the introduction of modern batiks from Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies) to West Africa during colonization.

The batiks were essentially appropriated into West African cultures at the same time Europeans were working to manufacture a cheaper stylized batik for Indonesian markets. Determined to expand, Europeans wanted their batiks to compete with the more expensive handmade Indonesian counterparts.

It was not until the end of the 19th century that the process for creating a wax-print fabric was created through the invention of the copper block. The Dutch seized this opportunity to grow their textiles market in West Africa when it was clear that West Africans were embracing the machine-made cloths. Today Dutch wax manufacturers, like Vlisco, continue to make prints, and the market has developed exponentially.

China has even entered the mix and for the last two decades, used giclée methods to reproduce cheaper copies of European designs. However, West Africans see the wax cloths as status symbols and are not necessarily concerned with how “African” they are versus their superior quality. Chinese imitations therefore, are perceived as second-rate to the Dutch standard.

There is also a distinction made between the centuries old handcrafted cloths produced by Africans throughout the continent and the wax prints created and sold in Africa and abroad. Foreign markets essentially push African hand-woven textiles and traditional cloths to the margins. There is a sense that traditional cloths are valued for their artistry, while African made wax prints are valued for their ascribed symbolism as international and sophisticated, but remain inferior to Dutch productions.

So although West Africans give their own social meanings to the majority of foreign imported prints, the West simultaneously assigns its own understandings of African culture(s) and authenticity to the fabrics. This is where the history of the exports becomes convoluted.

The consumption of Africa and its cultures as ready-made, unchanging, exotic and undeveloped is the consequence of Western imperialism. It is the Western gaze that enables such mythical notions of Africa to persist while perpetually reifying these false perceptions.

Anthropologist Nina Sylvanus, whose expertise is in the history and function of West African textiles, contends that calling fashion collections “tribal” also “harks back to a sort of evolutionist, colonial perspective which attempts to freeze Africa as a place where ‘tradition’ is still happening.”

How can we call African-prints or clothing that is African-inspired, “African”? What does it mean for something to be “African” in light of these contradictions? Moreover, should I feel some kind of way when I see white people, specifically white women, modeling fashions that are perceived to be African?

It is difficult not to cringe with discomfort regarding the relationship between fashion and Africa. In particular, when I am constantly reminded of how Africa is an idealized specimen for global exploitation in fashion and art.

Nonetheless, I am also confronted with the reality that I am not exempt from the influence of the fashion industry’s long reach. I want to consume the beautiful prints, patterns, colors and textures of “African” designs as much as the next person, if not more due to the perception of their African authenticity, which I’ve lived with for so long. This will always be a contradiction that is difficult to reconcile.

Thus, although I disagree with the reasons behind the popularity of African prints, I can’t help but get excited when I see some of these beautiful pieces. And in those moments, it excites the consumer in me. 


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Tania L. Balan-Gaubert is a Haitian American native of Chicago. She received her master’s degree in African American Studies from Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tanialaure. 

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