Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wax Cloth and Textile Designs on the Street in St. Louis, Senegal

 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.

My hostess in St. Louis is my new Congolese sister-in-law, a woman whose wardrobe exhibits her impeccable taste and insistence on first-quality materials. She is the mother of five daughters (the youngest is twenty), all of whom are tres chic. One hosts and produces a twice-weekly television program in Dakar on subjects that include current fashion.

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 other highly popular form of wax is printed (machine or block-printed) resist designs, from simple to elaborate. These are, again, nearly always bold and bright, in colors of great intensity. Some of these designs clearly require five or six printings, their designs have so many layers of interlocked designs.

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.



  1. Only one and a half smiles to be seen in the crowd, but the fabrics are full of joy! Thanks, Ann, for a glimpse into another part of our world.

  2. Life is pretty hard there. I don't think that the fabrics reflect the joy of the people necessarily. It's hard to know the meaning of such color and design, but it's tempting to interpret! My own sense it that it's an affront to difficulty--but that's my own poetic version!

  3. Thank you for showcasing the glimpse of Wax Cloth and Textile Designs on the Street