Ankara – A Complicated History

Ankara fabric is usually associated with Africa or worn by Africans because of it’s tribal like patterns and bright colors. HOWEVER, Ankara’s history is complicated and interesting and has nothing to do with Africa.

Ankara is traditionally made from an Indonesian wax-resistant dyeing technique called batik. The goal is to keep the dye from reaching all of the cloth which creates a pattern. The Dutch began to mass produce it which is why it’s sometimes referred to as “Dutch Wax”. They intended it for the Indonesian market but it actually turned out to be more popular in West Africa (because the Indonesians didn’t appreciate the imperfections within the machine printed cloths and the West Africans preferred that no two cloths would look the same) and now it has spread to other African countries. I’ve visited Rwanda and lived in Uganda and now, Kenya. Each of these places have an abundance of Ankara fabric within their fabric markets.

How did it become popular in West Africa? In the mid-19th century, the Dutch enlisted West African men for their army in Indonesia. While in Indonesia, the men were attracted to this batik craft and took it back to their countries. 

Stella, Ankara, and Cultural Appropriation…

Stella McCartney’s Spring 2018 Collection featured Ankara fabric worn by predominantly white models. She received a lot of backlash with critics screaming ‘cultural appropriation’ for her to use Ankara fabric especially without many black models. OkayAfrica even accused her of “fashion colonialism”.

Her Response: “The prints were about celebrating a unique textile craftsmanship, its culture and highlighting its heritage. We designed the prints in collaboration with Vlisco in the Netherlands, the company that has been creating unique Real Dutch Wax fabrics in Holland since 1846 and helps maintain its heritage.”

My Opinion:

Though Vlisco has had it’s fair share of problems throughout history, I personally don’t believe this was cultural appropriation and “fashion colonialism” is just too harsh of a term to use. OkayAfrica explained their comment further by expressing that many designers take African designs, call them their own, and sell them for incredibly high prices. I agree that many designers do this, however, we cannot say that Ankara is an ‘African design’. It’s a design that is most popular in African countries but given the history, it’s origin is of Indonesian decent.

West Africans loved the fabric, took it back to their countries, and made it their own. I call that admiration of another culture’s traditions and mixing it with your own; something that every group in the history of the world has done. I think it’s beautiful that we can learn from each other and admire each other’s culture by adopting their traditions into ours.

It is important to research the history of a fabric or design or technique before we use or imitate it. If it’s not properly researched then that it is what I would consider to be cultural appropriation especially if it’s sold or mass-produced. Give credit where credit is due.

What are your opinions on cultural appropriation? Was Stella right or wrong to incorporate Ankara into her Spring 2018 Collection? Has she lost her credibility as a sustainable fashion designer?

Loren Hamilton

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