This winter, fashion and accessory designers explore exotic motifs associated with the rich, decorative designs of Africa and Asia. Vibrant geometric prints and colorful embellishments are everywhere. Runway fashions from Prada to Rachel Roy draw inspiration from an international palette of print styles including Ikat and Batik.
Ikat fabrics are instantly recognizable by their up-and-down, almost bleeding-dye quality. This process has been practiced all over the world, from Mexico to Uzbekistan and Cambodia to Japan.
Batik prints are a dyeing technique drawn on wax that is popular throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Bolder, more complicated patterns are usually worn by nobility while simpler designs are for everyday use — ranging from florals and paisleys to geometric shapes, batiks can come in thousands of styles, but all have that tell-tale delicately layered look.
Colorful geometric print styles are often identified as “African” or “tribal.” But did you know that the batik print style actually originated in Indonesia, not Africa? It is believed that, during the mid 19th century, the Dutch enlisted West African slaves and mercenaries to strengthen their armies in the Dutch West Indies and these West African men brought batik back to their homeland. Europeans industrialized the production of these wax-based fabrics and sold them into a growing market in West Africa, where they are still popular today.
Nina Sylvanus, an anthropologist who has made a career of studying the function of wax cloth in West Africa, says that “when Western designers call collections that use wax prints ‘tribal,’ it harks back to a sort of evolutionist, colonial perspective which attempts to freeze Africa as a place where ‘tradition’ is still happening.” The truth is that West Africans who buy bolts of batik fabric, generally to be tailored into dresses and suits, are fully aware of the fabric’s complicated origins. Today, these prints are regarded by wearers in places like Togo, Ivory Coast, and Ghana as international and cosmopolitan.
If you happen to be in Abidjan during the month of December, be sure to checkout Côte d’Ivoire Fashion Week for cutting edge print interpretations. Or simply try adding a little Ikat and Batik to your looks this season to spice things up and celebrate the rich international history of print.