More Fun With Cultural Appropriation! This Time With Ankara Prints

The question I’m asked often, by other budding designers or people in creative spaces, is this: “But I can be inspired by anything! How do I avoid people saying I’m ‘appropriating’?” The answer is simple -- give credit to your inspiration.
Publish date:
September 11, 2013
cultural appropriation, West African prints, ankara

So I was at a big box store over the weekend, hoping to pick up a few jeans on clearance, when something caught my eye.

It was a fabric in a graphic print of pink and blue, sticking out like an oddity among a display of black, white and navy skirts. I wandered over to examine more closely, and when I pulled the garment from the rack, found myself surprised.

It was a jersey pencil skirt in what was supposed to be an ankara print. Oh… okay,I thought.

Quick primer: Ankara fabrics, or wax prints (or block prints, as some people call them) are a mainstay of West African fashion. They are bright, bold, graphic and geometric prints that command attention and are widely worn in celebration.

When I was a kid, our church would have a yearly Heritage day in which the whole congregation would dress in wax prints (at least, the best you could hope to find in Pittsburgh). And my Nigerian friends have entire wardrobes of custom-made clothing in Ankara fabrics, worn for weddings, graduations, and any other celebratory occasion, or sometimes just because it’s Tuesday.

(Slate has a great explainer on the history of wax prints and how they came to be synonymous with status and sophistication in West African nations.)

Suffice it to say -- black folk have been wearing ankara prints and designing clothes with it for years upon years (see: Duro Olowu, Boxing Kitten) -- even though fashion just discovered the “trend” two years ago.

Now ankara prints are popping up all over the place -- but rarely are they called by their proper name. You can often see them imprecisely referred to as “African prints." (Again, I’d like to remind folks that Africa is a massive continent with 52 distinct nations, hundreds of cultures and languages and scores upon scores of different styles of artistic expression. Please stop referring to things as simply “African.”)

Even though ankara has been weaving its way through the fashion channels, seeing a version of this West African textile design in a big box store was jarring, to say the least. Soon as I got home, I did what I always do -- shared my latest retail discovery with my group of Internet superfriends. I searched the store's site for “ankara” -- no luck. (“Sorry, we couldn't find a match for "ankara", but results for "angora" are shown below.”) Then I searched “wax print skirt” -- no hits -- and finally, while cringing, “African skirt.” Still no dice.

Then I just started browsing the site like a normal person, and finally found the skirt, under “Women’s Printed Jersey Pencil Skirt.”

Only one problem -- the very obviously ankara-inspired print was listed as “Blue Floral.”

Quipped one of my Nigerian friends, “They Miley Cyrus’d our shit?! FLORAL?!”

The Miley Cyrus comparison is the most apt. Thanks to a certain latex-clad twerker, I’ve spent more time in the past week than I ever have before thinking and talking about appropriation and cultural erasure -- and how the fashion industry is perpetually guilty of it.

Earlier this year, journalist Lolla Mohammed Nur launched a social media campaign when she found that a major retailer was selling a traditional East African garment -- and calling it a “90s vintage dress.” Nur, who is Ethiopian and Eritrean, said the dress should have at very least been identified by its proper name -- “hager lebs,” or “zuriya” -- and not represented to be some kind of popular style from America’s grunge years. On her blog, Lolla wrote:

“... the way the dress was labeled and presented assumes the dress is a western or American creation. ... By incorrectly labeling our traditional clothing, you are in effect erasing our cultures and histories, exploiting our civilizations and artistry, and all for your own profit and for our own brand.”

And that’s precisely what sent me spinning when I saw that “blue floral” skirt. To have a major retailer adopt a knock-off West African wax print is one thing, but to refuse to even call it by its name? That’s the insulting part. Yet that’s how cultural appropriation works. And that’s how a culture that created a style, or fashion, or form of music gets erased from the "mainstream" record. A skirt may seem like a small thing, but when it comes to erasing the culture that brought the use of bold, abstracted geometric motifs to clothing, a measly little skirt can be very effective at making customers think such a pattern never existed before.

(The encouraging thing, I should mention, is that my friends who’ve literally lived their lives in wax prints were not at all impressed by knock-off effort. “I won’t even trip because that’s imitation at its worst,” said one friend. Added another: “What is with the jigsaw puzzle of robot roses?!”)

The question I’m asked often, by other budding designers or people in creative spaces, is this: “But I can be inspired by anything! How do I avoid people saying I’m ‘appropriating’?” The answer is simple -- give credit to your inspiration.

Respect it by researching it, and make others respect it by sharing with them what you’ve learned. It takes two seconds to say “I saw these fabrics in photos of a wedding celebration in Ghana.” It takes half a second to emphasize that you’re using ankara fabrics, or Indonesian batiks, or textile designs from 1960s Russia. Really, it doesn’t take that much effort to supply proper attribution (journalism 101) -- which is why when designers and companies don’t do it, the end result feels so dismissive and insulting. And, often, poorly executed.

So the moral of the story: Don’t be a dick when it comes to design. Honor your inspiration, in research and in execution. Don’t act like the people who created it never existed. Don’t pretend that your audience won’t know where it came from. Someone will. And that someone will happily call you out.

When she’s not critiquing clothing stores, Veronica can be found occasionally tweeting at @veronicamarche.