The Political Rhetoric Of Our Fabric

6th July 2018 BY Mutinta Nanchengwa
The Political Rhetoric of Our Fabric.

For most African aunties, the chitenge (also known as kitenge, Ankara or for some cultures, simply a ‘wrapper cloth”) has a more functional use than glamorous. Baby toting, dust protection, kitchen party outfit, that was the general use of the chitenge. No one would have suspected that the humble fabric, would become a widely accepted political statement. And yet, chitenge fabric has moulded, shaped and influenced the African fashion industry.

Let’s be honest, it is lazy to call fashion African solely because it was made from African print. But let’s counter this argument. Chitenge fabric has more significance than just being an “African print”. Apart from carrying cultural significance of protection and upholding decency, it also sets us apart.

The Significance Of The Chitenge

Think about it, how would you tell an African aside from a non-African? The way they talk, their separate and diverse cultures, and yes, the way they dress. It’s more than just the fabric, it’s the meaning behind the fabric.

If you visit most African countries, you will see women and men walking around in outfits made form chitenge fabric. Some of them are patterns and motifs, others carry a specific message. But most, are worn because of the identity that is enhanced by the patterns and motifs on their favourite Boubou.

The chitenge has been a piece of cloth, for practical purposes for the most part. In most villages in Africa, woman will wear the chitenge to protect their clothes and hair from the dirt and damage that comes from everyday chores. It was also used as a helpful sling to carry babies and sometimes to carry parcels in.

“It’s more than just the fabric, it’s the meaning behind the fabric”


Cultural Appropriation

Recently, Stella McCartney released a summer fashion line that had models wearing “African inspired” summer outfits. The problem is, the outfits were basically what a normal African would wear to go to the market, or do chores around the house, or any other regular day to day activity. To stir the pot even more, she only had one African model walking the ramp.

Stella McCartney’s “African-inspired” runway show 

Such of forms of cultural appropriation are exhausting, because, we as Africans feel robbed of the very thing that we hold dear to ourselves and call our own. Many twitter users noticed this discrepancy and called it out. While there were many counter arguments going back and forth, about how the wax print has dutch origins, the fact remains, chitenge, Ankara, kente and many more, have a very real cultural significance. And having it misrepresented on the runway, belittles the signifance of the material.

And yet, that’s why we wear our “African print”, our chitenges and daishikis, or Boubou and Kente cloth with so much pride.

Call it defiance, or a simple dare, but the very thing that is being grabbed from us, is the fabric we hold onto, fiercely.

It’s more than just fashion, it’s a political statement.