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What Is Ankara and African Wax Prints

Turkish Capital City? No, it’s Fabric.

A quick google search for the word Ankara will probably throw up results related to the capital of Turkey. Turkey is a beautiful part of the world with amazing people. However, the Ankara that we feature on Ebonyx is a reference to the famous fabric that is often worn by people of African diaspora.

Ankara prints are commonly known by many other names such as ‘Ankara prints’, ‘African prints’, ‘African Wax prints’, and ‘African Dutch wax prints’. Regardless of which these terms are used, they are all referring to the same thing – Ankara. Although we’re not sure who named the prints Ankara, we do know its history and where it came from.

The History of Ankara Print

The origination of Ankara can be traced back to the Indonesian method of dyeing cloth through using wax resistant techniques known as Batik. The Batik method consists of melting wax onto a blank cloth in a way that patterns are formed through the application of the wax. The cloth is then soaked in coloured dye with the wax patterned areas being blocked from colour by the wax. This process can be repeated until the desired style has been achieved.

In 1800 the Dutch colonized Indonesia and learned the Batik method from the indigenous peoples. These techniques were later picked up by textile factories within the Netherlands and by the 1850s Batik styles were being mass-produced. With the factories came new innovations in printing with mechanically applied resins over time becoming popular than wax because of cost, durability, and ease of application. For the resin method, a block printing machine applies resin to both sides of the fabric with the fabric then coated in the dye with the resin areas blocked from being coloured. The cloth is later boiled to remove the resin. Further distinctive styling came in the form of ‘cracking’, where the resin was cracked to produce lines on the fabric.

The Dutch were hoping to penetrate the Indonesian market with this new resin method. However, the mass-produced resin prints were not the success the Dutch were hoping for with the native Indonesian market preferring the traditional wax print because of its sweet smell which the resin lacked. However, the Dutch did eventually find success with their resin prints, over in the West African market in the late 1800s.  It is thought the success of fabrics was driven by the Belanda Hitam, who were soldiers recruited from the Dutch Gold Coast (contemporary Ghana) for the efforts of colonizing Indonesia by the Dutch. The Belanda Hitam started wearing the resin wax prints and over time the styles became more popular with the peoples of West Africa.

However, producing wax prints were more costly and took longer to print compared to other forms of printed fabric, owing to the intricate patterns and many layers needed to produce some designs. By the 20th century the prints were widely produced and worn by West-African and with the demand came the need for further innovation in production methods. Today, most fabrics are designed and printed digitally with the fabrics being called imiwax, roller prints, or fancy. With the digital printing came bolder styles and colours produced much more quickly and cheaply and with fewer design errors.

 

Types of African Wax Prints

Ankara or wax prints have become an overarching term for prints and designs traditionally worn by people in many parts of Africa. Under the umbrella term of Ankara, there are many distinctive styles.

Although there are many ways Ankara fabrics can be styled, there are features that most Ankara prints share. Typically, Ankara prints are characterized by big, bold, beautiful colours such as bright reds, yellows, and greens. These colours are purposely used to make the wearer stand out from the crowd and are statement fashion pieces. Some styles are primarily worn by specific ethnic groups, some are characterized by their colours and patterns, some are characterized by the type of garment, and some are characterized by the occasion for wear.  Here is a list of some Ankara prints.

Adire

The Adire is a resist-dyed fabric mostly worn by the Yoruba people of Nigeria and originally from the city of Abeokuta. Adire comes from the Yoruba people and means ‘tied and dyed’ with clothing usually a vibrant contrast of colours and patterns.

Agbada

The Agbada is the name given to the wide-sleeved robe by the Yoruba people, but the robe may be named differently by peoples of other ethnic groups. Traditionally the robe would be plain in colour but in recent years has been jazzed up with embroidery and typical brightly coloured Ankara patterns. The robe is reserved for formal occasions such as weddings and religious ceremonies.

Bògòlanfini

Bògòlanfini otherwise known as Bogolan is native to the people of Mali and is traditionally dyed with fermented mud. The term Bogolan translated to English means Mud Cloth but Bogolan is actually clay slips made from high iron content. Unlike most other print styles, the Bogolan is usually made with more subtle colours such as blues and greys. Designers such as Chris Seydou have been credited for bringing the Mud Cloth fashion mainstream.

Capulana

Mostly found in Mozambique, the Capulana is a type of fabric usually worn as a skirt or as a dress and is popular for its practicality and can be used to carry items or even babies. The Capulana was first introduced to the Mozambique people from traders in India and Arabia. Similar to many other Ankara styles, the Capulana are usually made in bright colours such as yellows and reds.

Dashiki

Mostly found in Mozambique, the Capulana is a type of fabric usually worn as a skirt or as a dress and is popular for its practicality and can be used to carry items or even babies. The Capulana was first introduced to the Mozambique people from traders in India and Arabia. Similar to many other Ankara styles, the Capulana are usually made in bright colours such as yellows and reds.

Ghanian Smock

Similar in appearance to the Dashiki, the Ghanian Smock is a type of shirt worn mainly by men in Ghana, though women can wear the Ghanian Smock too. However, the main difference between the Ghanian Smock and the Dashiki are the colours and patterns. Whereas the Dashiki is made from bright colours, the Smock is usually made in darker colours such as grey and black and finished with plaid stitching.

Habesha Kemis

The Habesha Kemis gets its name from the ethnic Habesha women of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Habesha Kemis is a dress worn for formal events such as weddings. Made from the traditional Ethiopian cloth called Shemma, the cloth is hand-woven by weavers known as Shemane. As the Habesha Kemis are usually for formal events, most dresses come in a mixture of more subtle colours such as greys, white, and black.

Kanga

Sharing many similarities to other wax print fabrics, the Kanga is a colourful patterned fabric worn mostly by women. The Kanga bares resemblance to the Dashiki or Kitnege but is solely for informal wear. The Kanga is also very versatile as the fabric can be used for clothing, home décor, and much more.

Kente

Another native to Ghana, the Kente is a fabric is made from interwoven cloth and is common attire amongst Ghanaian tribes. There are many types of Kente such as Ahewpan and Adweneasa with differing styles and patterns. The Kente comes in a variety of colours with each colour having a symbolic meaning. The word Kente can trace its roots back to the Akan people of Ghana.

Korhogo

The Korhogo cloth is made by the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast. Not as famous as some of the other prints, the Korhogo cloth is most like the Bògòlanfini with the more subtle earthy colours such as grey and black. Most distinctive about the Korhogo is that the prints are hand-painted onto the cloth through the mud-based paint giving the designs those earthier colours. The prints are normally of animals and personified objects rather than patterns with the drawings having symbolic meaning.

Kuba

Hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kuba cloth are another unique form of African print. Most Kuba cloth are traditionally made from woven palm leaf known as raffia and finished to resemble velvet with an embroidery finish. The Kuba are usually coloured brown with the patterns accentuated in a darker brown for contrast.

Mushanana

The national ceremonial dress of women from Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda, the Mushanana is a lightweight skirt wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder. Women don’t typically wear the garment in their daily activity but are used for special occasions such as weddings and funerals. The Mushanana comes in a variety of colours.

Shweshwe

The Shweshwe is another type of dyed cloth found throughout South Africa. Today, the fabric can be found in many colours with many intricate patterns and designs but in its early days was dyed in Indigo. The name Shweshwe comes from its association with the King Moshoeshoe of Lesotho who had gifted the fabric to French missionaries. Shweshwe is a trademarked fabric with Da Gama Textiles controlling production. However, in recent years Da Gama Textile’s grip on the market has loosened with cheaper imitations from Asia penetrating the market.

Famous People & Celebrities Wearing Ankara Print

The 1960s was the beginning of counterculture with many social taboos explored and topics such as racism and civil rights being at the forefront. At the time, black political activists and Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis were fighting for equality of all people. As the Civil Rights Movement took hold, a cultural revolution within the black community was also happening with many African Americans rejecting the Europeanised version of beauty and appearance, instead shaping their appearance to appear more Africanized. One way they could achieve this was through their choice of attire with garments such as the Dashiki and Kente becoming a symbol of black pride. Since then, African attire has continued to grow in popularity and has become world renown and famous with movies such as Coming to America (1988) introducing African wax prints and Ankara to Hollywood and the world. Today, it is not uncommon to see celebrities step out in Ankara and wax prints. Here are few celebrities that have been seen in Ankara clothing.

Lupita Nyong'o

Born to Kenyan parents, Lupita Amondi Nyong’o was born in Mexico City but moved to Kenya with her family at the age of one. The actress of Kenyan heritage has never shied away from her African roots and has been seen on many occasions wearing Ankara. Here she is pictured in Lagos, March 2020.

Gwen Stefani

Taking inspiration from Africa, Gwen Stefani released her L.A.M.B. Spring 2011 collection. Her 47-piece collection was aimed at women with designs featuring the bold bright colours of Ankara and wax prints with reds, yellows, and blues used plenty. Some called the collection cultural appropriation while others called it cultural appreciation. Either way, people from non-African backgrounds are wearing African wax print styles.

Beyoncé

Beyoncé Knowles is one of the most famous and influential celebrities in the world and arguable the most influential African American woman in the United States. Designed by Ena Gancio, in 2019 Beyoncé posted the below photo of her in Ankara outfit to her Instagram. This photo alone racked up nearly 4 million likes on Instagram.

John Boyega

The British born Star Wars star was born to Nigerian parents and is fiercely proud of his African heritage. In March 2020, the star announced a partnership with streaming service Netflix to produce non-English speaking films focused on Africa. Boyega has been seen on many occasions wearing African prints like the example below of him in a Blue Agbada.

Stormzy

Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr., otherwise known as Stormzy is a British rapper of Ghanaian descent. The breakout star had meteoric year in 2018 which landed him the opportunity to attend the red-carpet movie premiere of Marvel’s Black Panther. It was only fitting that he dressed to impress, paying homage to his African roots for the premiere of the film which had a primarily black-led cast.

African Wax Print - The Future of Fashion

The market for Ankara and wax print garments has exploded in recent years with example items being found in every corner of the world. From Europe, to Asia, to North America – where there is an African presence, you will find African wax prints. As of 2018, in Sub-Saharan African alone, African textiles have sales volumes of more than 2.1 billion yards with a retail value of $4 billion, with the worldwide value undoubtedly being much higher. As the market continues to grow, new innovations and designers will enter the market. The trend that we expect to be at the forefront will be a fusion between western streetwear designs and traditional African Ankara designs.

The below designs from AXUM clothing showcases a fusion between streetwear and traditional African wax prints.

Regular Denim Jacket in Black – with fabric paint splatters and Red Dashiki Ankara

Okomu – Unique Headbands Made With Ankara Fabric

Blue Nile – Men’s Ankara Shirt with a Wax Print

African wax prints and clothing are a staple piece throughout Africa and are often the choice of daily attire for millions in the African continent. The trend and taste for the clothing is growing and one thing can be said for sure – Ankara and wax prints are here to stay.

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