Think African prints originated in Africa? Think again.

- - Field Trip

When you close your eyes and you think of “African prints,” what do you see? Bold, vibrant, colorful prints? Something like this, perhaps?

Print 1

You’re not alone. Runway designers who have incorporated these prints into their collections are quick to cite African inspiration. However, it turns out that there may be other influences and locations worth citing as inspiration when these bold, graphic prints make their way down the runway.

During a recent field trip to the Perelman Museum (part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), we learned a few interesting bits of information about what most of us think of as African wax prints. In fact, being fashion history lovers, we couldn’t help but be intrigued by (and to share) the true tale behind these gorgeous textiles.

To put things in perspective, the story of “how African prints became known as African prints” reminded me of a story from my childhood. Years ago, during an end-of-summer vacation, my cousin came to visit. I grew up in Kansas and she was from the east coast. We were 8 and 10 and both loved to draw and create. One afternoon at our family’s kitchen table, she showed me how to draw her signature ladybug. That school year, I took her ladybug design and created an entire community of hand drawn ladybugs, each with a different name, personality and look. My classmates loved my ladybugs and if I had been a little more business savvy, I would have cashed in on the number of drawings they wanted me to create. Though the ideas continued to come from my cousin Jenny, I developed an entire “line” around the Laricks ladybugs which really caught on at my elementary school and soon became my signature.

We will come back to this story in a moment…

Look closely. See Vlisco printed on the selvage? This is to prove the authenticity of this print.

Look closely. See Vlisco printed on the selvage? This is to prove the authenticity of this print.

Did you know that apparently, today’s “African Prints” are wax prints that are industrialized versions of hand-drawn, hand-blocked, hand-dyed batik that date to 8th century China and India? And it wasn’t until later in the 13th century that islanders on Java refined the technique? Today, these traditional techniques are used at only two factories – ABC, originally an English wax company, which recently moved to Ghana, and Vlisco which is located in the Netherlands and was the subject of the exhibit we attended at the Perelman Museum.

Now get this – Vlisco found a market in West Africa around 1867. Since then, their prints have caught on and been made popular by African vendors who assign meaning and value to the prints. In fact, when printed cloth is sent to Africa from Vlisco, it leaves only with a stock number. Once it arrives, African vendors name the fabric based on proverbs, current events, politics, religion and material culture. “One design can have many interpretations depending on where it is used. It is through naming that the prints acquire social meaning, status, and value and become culturally assimilated into African society,” say curators of the exhibit.

Much like my cousin Jenny provided the artistic ideas from across the country and I made them popular in my neighborhood by giving them meaning and a context for my “customers,” Africans have done the same for Vlisco’s prints. So much so, that the world now associates these gorgeous graphic prints with African fashion. Ironically, and somewhat “full circle,” inexpensive knock-offs of these hand created wax prints that originated in China and India, are now being produced in China. Unfortunately, these lesser quality versions are posing a threat to those companies still using the original wax block technique.

Just a little print history for thought for the next time you are inspired by “African prints.” Now you know!

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Kara Laricks is a regular contributor to the University of Fashion. She’s also a New York based women's wear and accessories designer. As the first winner of NBC's Fashion Star, Kara has designed collections for H&M, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. Her masculine meets feminine line, Kara Laricks, debuted at New York Fashion Week in 2012 and her S/S 2013 collection sold exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue. Kara's designs have been featured on the Today Show and HBO's True Blood as well as covered in Women's Wear Daily and on Kara holds Master's degrees in both Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Kansas and in Fashion Design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. An educator turned designer, Kara is dedicated to supporting emerging designers and inspiring others to follow where dreams lead.