Mainstream African fabric design has arguably the most distinctive aesthetic of any international textile industry, yet contradictorily its origins were not even based on the continent. Traditional African wax print designs are made by dying cotton decorated with wax which resists the dye and leaves a pattern – a process inspired by Indonesian/Javanese batik fabric printing. And the pattern designs themselves were also not originally created in Africa. When the Dutch company Vlisco started to industrialise wax printing in the late 19th Century, it found success selling its designs through the market traders of West Africa. However, this is when Africans made it their own. Starting in Ghanaian markets and soon reaching neighbouring countries, the wax print cloth trade really started to take off after the decolonisation of many African nations in the 1950s and 60s, largely thanks to post-independence trading rules, and – in no small part – to the storytelling skills of the female market traders known as Nana Benz (so-called because they liked to spend their riches on Mercedes Benz cars).
“The Nana Benz managed to control the textile market by getting a monopoly on designs, and in a very clever way, gave [the fabrics] names to make them popular and desirable,” explains anthropologist Anne Grosfilley. Anne specialises in African textiles and is an author of the book African Wax Print Textiles published by Éditions de La Martinière, and consultant to brands such as Christian Dior, as well as the curator of the exhibition Fibres Africaines, currently at the Musée de la Toile de Jouy. Anne says that even though the textile patterns hadn’t been designed locally, the Nana Benz imbued them with meaning and stories that would resonate with locals. “Via the designs, they initiated a form of language to express what women want and dream about.” The names would relate to romantic relationships and attitudes, for example, an open cage with a bird flying out was called “if you go out, I go out too,” and a fabric depicting horses was called “I can run faster than my rival”. “Over the years the textiles have become much more than pieces of fabric, they are literally women’s voices,” adds Anne.
After the independence, many mills and textile companies were set up across Africa, so Africans could now design and produce the fabrics that had become intrinsic to their culture. By the 1980s, Togo had the biggest market on the continent for wax prints, with traders coming from all over Africa to buy the latest trends, and the Nana Benz estimated to be responsible for around 40 per cent of all commercial business in the country. Designs took on different meanings and stories depending on the country and region, with sellers adapting the fabrics’ names to their local culture, fables and symbols. In recent years they’ve also come to represent contemporary culture; some fabrics are named after characters from popular Brazilian soap operas, for example, and there are apparently seven designs named after Barack Obama. Similarly, colour also has different meanings: often brown and red for mourning, a white background is used to say thank you to god, red and yellow for everyday fashion, and “more audacious colourways called ‘off’, literally worn to show-off,” Anne says.