On a recent visit to the northernmost city of Senegal, St. Louis--located near the border of Mauritania, where the Senegal River meets the North Atlantic--I had a few hours to watch people come and go downtown. The Senegalese are touchy about being photographed, so I've found it frustrating in my travels there to get photos of the vivid daily dress that I so admire. My hostess assured me though, that from our balcony, snapping photos in the interests of fashion would be fine, so I invoked the spirit of Bill Cunningham in the interest of art journalism.
In this family, the women move naturally between traditional dress and contemporary Western dress. The sisters tell me that they tend to save African garments for formal occasions. During the two weeks we were together, though, they did indeed enjoy the comfort of casual, capacious African garments.
Madame wears nothing Western. The difference between her day-to-day attire and her ensemble for the wedding of our children left no question, though, about which was which. The difference was materials, the latter being made of fabric shot through with gold thread and her headdress of lavish design being yet more radiantly golden. Day to day, she is usually in wax.
Wax cloth is decorated with wax resist processes, the best known techniques in the West being batik and tie-dye. Both are ubiquitous, and, like nearly all fabrics I've seen in Senegal, they are brightly colored.
Few of the fabrics worn in Senegal originate there. Some are made England and the Netherlands exclusively for the African market. But many come from Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon; all carry the mark of their nation of manufacture. Quality varies: Some bleed and shrink when laundered; the best are very stable.
The batik and tie-dye processes help trace the origins of wax cloth back to Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony in the 18th century. Through Dutch trade and manufacture, the fabric and processes were imported to Africa.
The pictures below are selections from my pleasant morning of fashion-watching above a busy commercial corner in St. Louis, on a 85º morning in December. From time to time a car rapide, the cheapest form of local and inter-city transportation will drive through, each with its own painting and personality, reflecting the exuberant approach to color and decoration that mark life in West Africa.