What are Dutch Wax Prints? They’re 100% cotton fabrics printed in bright colors with a technique that consists in applying wax resin on the fabric before submerging it in dye. Invented in the Netherlands in the 1800’s with the goal of mass reproducing Indonesian batiks, Dutch wax prints didn’t hit the mark in Indonesia because of their flawed prints. However, they found an unexpected market in the Gold Coast where their irregularities were seen as a asset, making the prints look more alive. Dutch wax prints then grew in popularity across West Africa, and evolved with patterns and colors designed to speak to this new audience.
Today, Dutch wax prints are an integral part of many African cultures. Their patterns even form a complex language, each one carrying meaning going from daily life to political expression.
Because of their particular printing process, authentic Dutch wax prints are rare and expensive (they are to this day mainly produced in the Netherlands and in Ghana). Most of the Dutch wax prints we know are actually fakes, mass produced in Asia and coated post-printing!
For a few years now, Dutch wax prints have been put in the spotlight by many designers. Met at first with a warm welcome in many French-African communities delighted to see these traditional fabrics get the fashion recognition they deserve (Kabibi Mag (FR), their use has been sometimes qualified of tone-deaf and insensitive, and now raises the question of cultural appropriation. “Do you have to be African to create African fashion? Not necessarily. But cultural heritage shouldn’t be obscured.” (Maze (FR)) A new generation of African-European designers is now working on reclaiming this cultural staple, too often reduced to folklore!
I sew, therefore I am – La Waxeuse – Cap’taines Crochettes – Sabali
While the question of cultural appropriation is still a heated debate in the fashion world, the general agreement in the sewing community seems to be on creativity without borders! A must-read: this refreshing post by Oonaballoona encouraging seamstresses to go for it without guilt. And as CinderellaRidvan testifies: ” I will say that my ambuyas (grandmothers and aunties) are delighted to see my white friends wearing it, they say the everyone looks better in beautiful prints…”.
– African waxprints (Wikipedia)
– What is African Wax print fabric?
– The curious history of “tribal” prints (Slate)
– Stella McCartney Accused Of Cultural Appropriation For Using Ankara Prints In Her Spring Collection (Huffington Post)
– Le Wax et la Haute Couture, appropriation ou exercice de style ? (Kabibi)
– Wax mania : La mode occidentale s’empare de la culture africaine (Maze)
– Wax on, Wax off (Oonaballoona)
Martha, March 2 2018
I think it’s cultural appropriation just the same a I would never make myself a qipoa style item
francesca, March 5 2018
If you mean qipao(?), just go to Hong Kong and see how the local tailors there push you to have them make one for you… They don’t seem to feel it’s cultural appropriation….. Just like when I was in Kenya I was harassed continually to have my hair corn rowed and I finally did it, and paid the girl twice as much as she asked because it took so long….. I have loads of beautiful hand weaves from Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Cote d’ivoire. My sister worked in these countries and others with Unicef, and bought them from people who begged her to buy from them because they were poor. She never bargained and usually paid more than asked if she thought the price wasn’t fair. Yup, we are an honest family who don’t like to take advantage of anyone. I think the sellers were happier with that, and with whitey here making something with their beautiful fabric, than if she said she couldn’t buy them because it was cultural etc etc etc….. Sometimes pc goes a bit too far. I suppose you think Sew House Seven’s pants that are inspired by Thai fishermen’s are cultural misappropriation too?
You need to distinguish between usage and attitudes. For instance people wearing important symbols like a star of David or an Arafat scarf to show support/affiliation, or taking a symbol like that and using it as a trend – it’s a huge difference in respect. I notice nobody thinks anything of the way crosses are worn in any way possible – ever since Madonna the singer (sic) started doing it! I’m not religious but I think it is SO disrespectful. It’s part of my culture to wear eyes to ward off the evil eye, and we also use hamzas a lot because of lots of Arab influence. No disrespect there either. Putting a hamza on a bikini bottom? That bugs me. It’s like the crosses….
Wendy, March 5 2018
Dutch wat fabrics are actually produced in the town where I live! (Vlisco, in Helmond, the Netherlands)
Darby, March 7 2018
That’s so neat! I’ve got relatives in Helmond (I’m half Dutch) and visited them 10 years ago. The prints are stunning. Great to hear the history of the fabric. Knowing it now, I would not feel uncomfortable wearing a wax print (called African wax print in North America), especially if it was something I made.
Claudia, March 8 2018
I wrangled with the question of cultural appropriation, and while I know there will never be consensus, I’ve decided to go ahead and work with the fabric. I’m approaching the fabric with awareness of its cultural and historical significance and treating it with respect. I am not trying to pass myself off as anything other than what I am nor am I claiming ownership of any heritage that is not my own. This is not too different from the general approach I take to the materials I use in my making.
Erica, March 24 2018
I love Wax Print because it has an amazing story and history woven into the fibres. I love it because it it vibrant, unusual and bold. I know about the fabric and share the story of it with others, just as I would with any other fabric I use with history. I believe Wax Print should be for everyone!
Beck, March 1 2018
Great topic! As my version of the Reglisse dress above demonstrates, I am indeed a wax cotton lover. But I have mulled over this issue, especially after reasing Oonaballoona’s post, to question if I am engaging in cultural appropriation. My personal conclusion was that while I can understand that there may be concerns if a fabric or culture or tradition is being appropriated for mass consumption and production for profit, I feel that this is a different beast to using it as a sewist. As someone who is passionate about beautiful fabrics and who is putting in the effort to hand-make a garment to specifically feature and showcases this fabric, I feel that the entire process is far more respectful to the cultural origins of the fabric than in a RTW context. Just my two cents worth!