In today’s culture, what’s news one minute may be forgotten the next. This is an even more common occurrence in the fashion industry, where designers, bloggers, and brands alike constantly outdo one another with the next big thing. This fast-paced culture creates a whirlwind of information - we hardly know what to focus on before something new arrives to attract our attention. This makes spreading the message of slow fashion (sustainably and ethically made clothing that’s designed to last) doubly as difficult. Our attention to the practices of clothing manufacturing is oftentimes interrupted with distractions like celebrity scandal or festival fashion. Questions such as who made my clothing? and where does this material come from? are answered with silence - if they are even asked in the first place.
This is where vital resources come in - books and journals, online databases, or special cultural exhibits, for example. The information to contextualize your clothing is out there - one just has to know where to look for it. As part of the Fashionkind initiative, we strive to become an educational resource for you, like the ones we use in our work every day.
A few weeks ago, Nina and I were fortunate to visit a unique cultural exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Until September 25th, contemporary African photography, architecture, and yes, fashion, travels to Philadelphia in Creative Africa.
The exhibition, spanning two floors of the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, highlights the oftentimes overlooked creative force of African artists - and what a powerful force it is. Though we spent a full afternoon entranced by the bright colors, intricate details, and fascinating histories presented in Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage and Threads of Tradition, we could have stayed every day until the special exhibition closes.
Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage
The exhibit in the Perelman Building’s Joan Spain Gallery excellently displays a fashion completely foreign to the city of Philadelphia. We were completely transfixed by the mannequins that stand on a stage in the center of the room, particularly their outfits’ interesting and impeccably executed fits and shapes, as well as the bright colors, unusual palette combinations, and unique sources of inspiration that come together to create each design, some of which are also displayed across the walls of the gallery.
On display are couture costumes for every occasion: dresses designed for galas, everyday wear, weddings, and church; luxurious coats with shiny sequins, jewels, and buttons; even menswear presented as suits and scarves - each mannequin dressed so differently from the next. Among the many designers whose work is featured are Pepita Djoffon of Benin’s leading fashion brand, the eponymous Pepita D; Leonie Amangoua and Josephine Memel, each a pioneer of Ivorian fashion; Lanre da Silva Ajayi and Ejiro Amos Tafiri of Nigeria; Wale Oyejide and Sam Hubler for the Philadelphia-based brand Ikire Jones; Ruhimbasa Nyenyezi Seraphine from the Congo, who designed a dress for Jill Biden to wear on her trip there; and Akoko Folibey Seibo of Togo, who began her fashion career as an apprentice at age 13.
The exhibit also featured the work of Inge van Lierop, who served as Vlisco’s Senior Fashion Designer from 2005 to 2016 and hails from the Netherlands. This ensemble demonstrates the extensive possibilities of 2015’s Tell collection: we loved the bold mixed prints, one of which is an updated version of Vlisco’s 1962 “Angelina” or “Cigar Band” pattern, and the incredibly detailed embroidered bomber jacket.
This gala dress, another of our favorite looks from the exhibition, was designed by Ghanian fashion house Stylista, which is based in Accra. It uses the oversized Spanish embroidered fan pattern from Vlisco’s 2015 See collection to create a flamenco-style dress. In an African-inspired twist, the flaring peplum at each side of the waist works to celebrate a woman’s curves - a contemporary take on the traditional Ghanian kaba and slit (a blouse with a matching long skirt).
Each textile transformed into ensembles on the mannequins is also displayed on the walls surrounding the stage to allow the visit to get a closer look. We learn that while Vlisco designs and produces each textile pattern, it leaves the factory unnamed, with only a serial number to identify it, so the female vendors who traditionally sell the Vlisco textiles bestow their titles. Each name is symbolic and often tied to local sayings. Dozens of names can exist for a single pattern. The emotions tied to the patterns give them life: they express love and loss, jealousy and desire, excitement and aspiration. Many fabrics’ meanings are from a woman’s perspective. Whether it’s a warning to a new husband, an assertive statement of inner strength, or even the visual form of a shopping wishlist, each pattern is certainly unique and beautiful in its own right - let alone as an article of clothing.
“La Famille” or “Happy Family” is Vlisco’s best-selling wax block pattern. The traditional family is represented through images of a hen, rooster, chicks, and eggs. The hen at the center implies that the woman is the head of the family.
This textile is called "Sac à main," "Sac d`Olive," "Handbag," “LV” (Louis Vuitton) and even “Le Sac de Michelle Obama” (Michelle Obama’s Handbag) - a reference to the first lady’s visit to Ghana in 2009.
As seen with the pattern above, we can infer the definition of luxury in another culture. While many fabrics show everyday objects, there’s an abundance of depictions of designer goods and luxury items - like diamonds, currencies, wrapped presents, and or high heels. Even the women who sell the Vlisco fabrics are sometimes called “Mama Benz,” after the luxurious cars they can buy with their earnings. But it’s about more than the material items - it’s about the lifestyle they promote. Several wax patterns depict a rearview or car door mirror, each with a reflection of a landscape: a city skyline, or a country pasture. Of course, luxury objects symbolize wealth. But these images of beautiful settings show that the ultimate dream is just to be - to live and work in a metropolis and to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature.
Nina and I liked the exhibit. But we didn’t love it. We certainly found it compelling, but a clear, simple issue lingered in our minds: because Vlisco is a Dutch company, these designs and creations cannot be authentically African. We will explore this issue further in an upcoming journal post.
Threads of Tradition
The Costume and Textiles Study Gallery on the Perelman’s second floor is transformed into a Central and West African cultural mecca through this installation. Vibrantly colored textile patterns hailing from the Asante and Ewe people of Ghana, the Kuba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and communities from Cameroon fill the small room. But the exhibition’s placards especially focus on the complex, centuries-old textile heritage, and weaving, dyeing, and embroidering techniques required to make the fabrics. We were mesmerized by the dazzling geometric patterns of strip-woven cloths - created by the process of weaving the fabric as individual continuous strips on a narrow horizontal loom which are then “pieced” together to make a larger design. Details, in the form of appliqué and embroidery, are added to the strips as they are woven on the loom. Visitors also get to try their hand in a much less complex method of pattern creation by arranging fabric-covered blocks.
The origins of African appliqué are attributed to Egypt and the Republic of Benin. While the countries are far apart geographically, we have evidence that cultures exchanged materials through trade. The technique of appliqué is, essentially, stitching fabric to fabric either for practical use or for decoration. The artisan creates a design, then pieces together scraps into a pattern in order to create a narrative. And, the art is typically practiced by men - not women.
Embroidery is a similar technique also used by African artisans to turn their designs - their stories - into a physical object. Instead of using additional fabric, however, embroidery incorporates thread or yarn, and designs are expressed through various stitches and colors of yarn. Both techniques represent tradition: they are passed down from parent to child, through generations of families.
Resist dyeing - a highly specialized art - is a third method of African cloth decoration. Records indicate the technique originated as early as the 7th century CE. Check out Nina’s experience with indigo dying for a more in-depth description of the process.
Like the Vlisco fabrics from African Fashion on a Global Stage each strip-woven cloth is given a name that refers to a person, animal, plant, object, proverb, event, or idea. We saw an Ashanti pattern of various crossing horizontal and vertical lines in maroon, green, goldenrod, tan, stone, and black. Called Aberewa Ben, or a clever old woman, the textile was created in the mid-1900s is named in honor of the spiritually strong women from the Asensie clan of the 1600s.
Threads of Tradition presents both men’s and women’s clothing, as well as clothing intended for informal and formal occasions and ceremonies, and clothing items specifically for gift-giving as well. To picture these textiles in context certainly allows for a deeper understanding of the role they have both in African society and because of it. Take the segment of the Kuba woman’s dance skirt, for example. This wrap skirt was created for wear at a specific event - a ceremony. But its design itself works to convey the act of dance. Appliquéd shapes lie in relation to one another, set at all angles to mimic the way dancers move themselves and in response to their surroundings. The near-eighteen-foot-long fabric never once repeats in design, while each section is inspired by the others, again evincing continuous, fluid movement.
We recommend a visit to all Creative Africa installations. While Vlisco and Threads will be on display until January, other exhibits close in September. However, don’t let the learning stop there - Creative Africa is only the beginning step to immersion in Africa’s varied creative forces and extensive history. We encourage everyone to step out of one’s own culture and dive deep into that of another - you might be surprised to find that, while each culture is unique, “threads of tradition” are woven worldwide to create a beautiful patchwork of people.
Creative Africa will be on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building until September 25th, 2016.
“Abomey Appliqué (Benin).” http://www.ibike.org/africaguide/textile/textile1.htm
“African Appliqué.” https://nomad4now.com/2015/07/23/african-applique/
“Threads of Tradition.” Philadelphia Museum of Art. http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/843.html
Cover photograph by Carmen Kemmink.
Nouvelle Histoire collection, 2011, designed by Sasja Strengholt, Deux díAmsterdam, for Vlisco.