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African Fashion: Dutch Wax

Made In Holland, Adored In Africa

For an African woman wearing ‘Dutch Wax’ or ‘Wax Hollandais’ , printed by Vlisco, is the ultimate luxury like Chanel, Hermes and Dior for women in the Western world. During important ceremonies and occasions, celebrations and parties wearing Vlisco is a dream come true. But it might come as a surprise that these fabrics are still printed in Helmond, a town in the South of the Netherlands, and shipped not only to Africa but also to London, Paris and New York.  And even more surprisingly, many of the designs for these textile were introduced more than hundred years ago and still very popular.

‘Dutch Wax’ or ‘Wax Hollandais’ has become a true sign of African authenticity and now represent African identity and pride. But its history goes back a long way. Clothing in Africa as elsewhere, was and is closely linked to identity and social status. Throughout the African continent, social and cultural identities of ethnicity, gender, generation, rank and status were transmitted through a range of personal ornamentation. Especially in West Africa there was already a long standing interest for high quality imported cloth. Items of clothing were not necessarily of local provenance. In many areas regional, national and even international markets had already developed a long time ago. Via Trans Saharan routes fine quality cloth was transported from Egypt, Yemen, Grenada and even India to West Africa from the 11th century onwards. From the 15th century West-European countries also started trading. But what are exactly the cultural roots of this ‘Dutch Wax’? And why did it become so popular in Africa?

Machine-Made Batik For Indonesia

‘Dutch Wax’ is not a Dutch or an African invention, but is originally part of the Indonesian culture. The Indonesians developed a printing process, using wax, called ‘batik’, completely hand made. At the beginning of the 19th century European manufacturers realized that there was a market for machine-made imitations of the Javanese batiks for the local population. The first record of this interest is Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ book about the History of Java (1817), where he gives the first published European account of the technique of batik making. To assist the English manufacturers in adapting their styles to the local taste he arranged for a collection of original Java cloth being sent. When Indonesia came back under rule of the Netherlands in 1816 after five years of being an English colony the Dutch also showed their interest in machine made copies of batik.

One company that specialized in the reproduction of batik was J.B.T. Previnaire, a skilled entrepreneur. In 1819 he founded a company in the Brussels area. But when Belgium became independent of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1830), King Willem I persuaded him to set up a factory in Haarlem in 1835, where he developed ‘La Javanaise’, a printing machine able to print a warm resin-wax resist on each side of the cloth. Additional colours were applied by hand using wooden blocks as stamps. To improve the productivity he replaced this machine soon by a duplex roller printing machine. His copies of traditional Indonesian batik motifs were extremely successful. Many competitors tried to copy it but they never reached the quality of Previnaire. When he died in 1854 his son continued the business, which he named the ‘Haarlemsche Katoen Maatschappij’ (Haarlem Cotton Company).

At the beginning of the 1860s demand for these so called wax batiks began to rise in the East Indies. But soon after 1867 the export of these imitation wax batiks went into sharp decline. In Indonesia there was rising competition of the local batik industry, who had developed new ways of a more economic and faster way of producing batik e.g. the use of copper block stamps.  Also the crackling and bubbling effect of the imitation batiks was not acceptable to the taste of the Indonesians who considered this as a sign of inferior quality. This is in contrast with the Africans, who prefer every single piece to be unique. So because the Indonesians were not willing to pay the premium most of the manufacturers stopped producing wax batiks and continued to produce a cheaper form of imitation batiks, the so called non-wax fancy prints. Only Previnaire believed in the future of this product and continued to develop further improvements. However, the company had difficulties to survive.

Machine-Made Batik For Africa
The period of conquest by European nations from the 1870s to the beginning of the 20th century marks also the end of the era of old colonialism and the beginning of the age of new imperialism for Africa. In West-Africa the British wanted to improve the trade and confirm their supremacy. They introduced a British way of administration and legal system. They invested in railways needed for the economy to expand beyond the limits of 19th century export production and in education to decrease illiteracy. These investments were made possible by an economic upturn by the end of the 19th century. The effect was that more Africans entered the export market and got involved in the global economy, which led to a rise in the standard of living and the development of new markets for luxury products such as high quality cotton prints. The large scale produced Manchester cottons that the British used to export no longer satisfied the needs of wealthier customers. Belgian, Dutch and Swiss companies, producing high quality for the South East Asian market were looking for other markets because the decline of the trade. They were in general smaller manufacturers that went through a lot of effort to gather information about the preferences of their customers so that they were able to adapt their products to the taste of the – African – customers.

One type of print that was very much appreciated was imitation batik from Europe. The Dutch East India Company, trading to Elmina in Ghana, played a role in the build-up of local demand for batik and its imitations. And when Ebenezer Brown Fleming (1858-1912) introduced around 1890 the wax prints of Previnaire – the most refined of all imitation batiks – on the West African market, it became an immediate success.

Contrary to the Indonesian clientele who had rejected the irregularities of the prints, the Africans appreciated this very aspect. The qualities of wax printed matched with the established character of tie-dye and resist print already known and widely appreciated in West Africa. Brown Fleming was able, more than any trader before him, to adapt print designs to his customers’ taste. He ran his business from Glasgow and had several wholesale customers in West Africa, who gave him feedback. The local agents had hundreds of local traders as their customers, nearly all of them were women. The trade made some of them very wealthy. In later years some of these trading women were even able to buy a Mercedes-Benz, which resulted in the nick name ‘Mama Benz’.

Brown Fleming initially traded existing designs from the Previnaire collection, most based on traditional Indonesian motifs, but quickly introduced designs inspired by traditional African cloth or based on proverbs. Some motifs became very popular and were re-used in new designs, like a hand, a peacock feather, an eye or an African sword. Another source for designs was the work of the missionaries in Africa. They were not only concerned with the spiritual needs of the population, but they also cared for their physical wellbeing. Clothing had their attention and especially the promotion of a more ‘decent’, western style, stimulated by the sewing classes of the various mission societies. Several designs seem to have been directly influenced by their ideas. A good example is ‘The Alphabet’ – a design with all the letters of the alphabet. Many of these designs have become classics and are still in print today.

 

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