African Dress?


It seems like a lot of the Spring 2012 collections (Louis Vuitton particularly) include a fabric that I would call a large-scale eyelet. I like the look, and wanted to make something similar.

Buying this fabric was a bit confusing. I checked some usual sources for this type of fabric, but could not find any, so I looked at some tertiary New York fabric stores where I knew that I had seen large-scale eyelet in the past. The saleswoman at the first store I went to flat-out refused to sell me any.

Then I went to Chic Fabrics. The African salesman there seemed a bit puzzled about my desire for this fabric.  He asked me what I wanted it for, and pointed out that it’s AFRICAN fabric.  It was a weird experience, but I, being American, was completely focused on getting WHAT I WANT WHEN I WANT IT, so I did not really delve into what he was getting at when we were speaking. Doing an online search on this fabric, I find that it’s called “voile lace” and it is, indeed, specifically West African or Ghanain.  So, if you are reading this and you are African, or if you know a lot about African sartorial tradition, I have a question for you.  If you were to see me (a white American suburban housewife) in this dress, would you think, “Cultural Appropriation”?  Is me wearing this dress kind of like me wearing my hair in dreadlocks?  The reason I’m asking is because I know a lot about clothes, and I just don’t see it.  I don’t even think this dress is all that unusual, let alone foreign to me.  

I know that it’s really hard to leave a negative comment on a blog, but it would help me to know what you think. Also, keep in mind that even if you do think this is not appropriate for me, I will wear it anyway. I just want to know if I need to be a bit careful about where I go when I wear it. No one in my suburb would see this dress as inappropriate, but people in the city might.

Back view. I cut the center back close to the edge of the fabric, so there’s a nice effect near the zipper.


I cut off some of the motifs from the extra fabric and appliqued them onto the dress near the hem. I only stitched in the middle of the motif so it flaps around a bit.

I used some silk organza in a similar color to the lace to bind the neckline and armholes.

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49 Comments

  1. annie
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Just saw this post. That dress is gorgeous! Some people in this world need to get a grip! Wouldn’t sell you the fabric? Like it’s some sort of purloined religious icon. What’s the point of being in business???? Sheesh.

  2. mrsmole
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    IT is stunning!!!!!!!!!!!! Not everyone could pull this off but anyone who wears this will get noticed and there will be a pool of drool! Gorgeous intense color and great techniques used.

  3. Posted June 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I like this (and a wouldn’t have a clue on the cultural aspect of this fabric). What colour will you wear underneath? Assuming you do wear something underneath 😉

    • Posted June 6, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

      In the photo, my form is wearing a very close-fitting pink spandex dress. I will either wear it with that or with a nude color spandex dress underneath.

  4. Cindy
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Gorgeous dress and color! I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t just a pretty large scale eyelet-like fabric. I’d been eying similar ones before but never purchased any.

  5. Mermie
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This dress is absolutely gorgeous and I can’t imaging anything inappropriate with regard to you wearing this dress.

    It is a beautiful dress and I don’t know what the significance of the fabric is, it is really very beautiful fabric.

  6. Posted June 6, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink | Reply

    It’s beautiful! I know my daughter would wear that in a heart beat…

  7. Posted June 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Well, I am an Asian-American woman in the suburbs and I have a couple of alternate explanations.

    In college, I had an African immigrant roommate and fell in love w/ her wardrobe and textiles. I have also sewn with African fabrics purchased in Los Angeles and on our Tanzania vacation.
    http://badmomgoodmom.blogspot.com/2011/01/second-day.html

    I have found that, particularly with east African fabrics, the quality is not what westerners expect. That is, the fabric may have slubs and other minor imperfections. It is virtually impossible to match the motifs at seams and center fronts of shirts because the motifs are hand blocked and each slightly different.

    He might have just been checking to make sure that you are willing and capable of working with goods that are not perfectly even.

    Alternatively, many “African” fabrics are not really African. They may be made Dutch in origin (unlikely in the modern era except at the most expensive stores). Or, most likely, they are made in Indonesia for the African market. In fact, a lot of “African” fabric is actually made in Indonesia and unscrupulously sold as “African” to the unsuspecting. Indonesian fabric is made in a more mechanized manner and cheaper. It’s also more even and easier to work with.

    African culture is really, really polite in a way that is not common in the US. The salesman might have been signalling to you that he is selling you the real thing and didn’t mean to insult you.

    I met an African woman last year when we were both shopping for African fabric near LA. I asked her how to tell if the fabric was really African. She asked me why I should care. Did I sew to sell my work? Or did I sew to enjoy my own garments? If so, sew with what I really like and forget about labels. That’s what she does. That’s what women in her native Ghana do. Very good advice indeed and I took it!

    I’ve been meaning to post about the differences in African textiles in my experience as a consumer and user. I am such a geek, but I took pictures of people’s clotheslines while I was in Africa. When I do, I will post a link here.

    In the mean time, take a look at an African tailor shop with fabrics on display for customers here:
    http://badmomgoodmom.blogspot.com/2011/01/second-day.html

    There’s an excellent blog about African textiles here:
    http://adireafricantextiles.blogspot.com/

    • Posted June 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink | Reply

      My lace is, indeed, slightly uneven. Not enough to cause problems, but definitely noticeable.

      A couple of years ago, when Yinka Shonibare won the Turner Prize, there were lots of articles on the Dutch wax prints which are considered African. After reading several of them, I thought I had a handle on African textile tradition. Now this voile lace thing has me confused.

  8. Jeannie Neely
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Beautiful, you should wear it proudly, you will look gorgeous in it. I am such an admirer of your work, and the fact that you do not sew ordinary clothes. Keep it up!

  9. Mary
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I know exactly what you mean. I was in Zimbabwe and loved the dresses that the women I met wore. So I had 3 dresses made for me in 3 lovely batik African prints. I am a 57 year old white woman, and pale northwesterner… I love the dresses, and have never had clothes fit me better. But they are African in style and fabric and I hesitate to wear them. I certainly don’t want to offend anyone. But I love them and I look good in them. But that lace doesn’t look all that ethnic to me… and I bet if I was wearing one of my African dresses next to you no one would notice!

    • Posted June 7, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

      From an American perspective, batik prints are much more stereo-typically African than this lace. I can see why you hesitate to wear them, but they sound so lovely that I think you should wear them.

      • Mary
        Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        They are lovely, I haven’t had someone else tailor my clothes since my wedding dress a long time a ago… they fit amazingly.. The skill the dressmaker had is delightful.

  10. gillian
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink | Reply

    It’s a beautiful dress, and a beautiful fabric, but I think you’re right to be wary of stepping on cultural toes. If it were me, the fact that the fabric sellers expressed reservations would give me pause. I would want to know the reason for their reluctance, at least, and going back and talking to them about the story behind the fabric would probably give you the clearest answer.

    • Posted June 6, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Unfortunately, that’s not convenient for me. I only go shopping in the city every couple of months or so, so I figured I’d ask here.

  11. Posted June 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Claudine – you used the fabric TOTALLY differently than it would have been used for an African garment. In fact I gasped when I saw it because I’ve wanted some of the lace and couldn’t figure out what to make with it that wouldn’t make me look like I was from the Motherland.

    In the garments I’ve seen the lace is used in more of a caftan look with a stole like piece that’s attached to the dress and thrown over a shoulder. They are not close fitting at all and usually made from the lace that has lots of sparkles and rhinestones. However, I understand why the shop owner was reluctant to sell it to you because it is a very cultural thing and why the one that finally did sell it to you couldn’t understand what you wanted it for…sort of like the Amish or the Orthodox Jews in NYC.

    Finally no you won’t look weird in it because of the styling most people won’t even associate the lace with the lace that’s used in traditional African garbs.

    • Posted June 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks! I trust your judgement and I’ll stop worrying about it now.

      About the rhinestones, I bought the yardage with the least amount of rhinestones. Then I washed it in my washing machine, and 90% of them fell off, which was a relief.

  12. Posted June 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The dress is fabulous. It is a beautiful use of the unusual fabric.

  13. Posted June 6, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

    It’s a stunning dress in a gorgeous color.

  14. Posted June 6, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Just heaven! A beautiful marriage of form and fabric.

  15. Posted June 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

    it is a beautiful dress and a wonderful use of a unique fabric. How is this different than the major designers using ikat woven fabrics for dresses a few seasons ago or japanese designers that use kimono fabrics, somtimes from deconstructed kimonos, and create western style dresses?

    • Posted June 6, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Thank you! Your question is similar to mine. It can be difficult to get dressed in the morning without engaging in some kind of cultural appropriation, but I always like to understand the signals that my clothes send to people in general and people of one culture in particular.

  16. akismet-21b053fec805c8711a1f608da8cdd26a
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I have no idea what the answer is to your question, but that is one beautiful dress!

  17. Posted June 6, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Simply beautiful regardless. I’m sure it looks great on you too.

    Denis at Mood (long gray ponytail) is my go-to expert on textiles. This is the kind of thing he’d know and would chat about, if he ever wasn’t with a customer.

    • Posted June 6, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I like him. He always tells me that he likes my clothes.

  18. Opacity
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I lived in Nigeria in the 1970s, where I went to high school. I am white. Nigerians thought it was normal to see me in Nigerian dress — probably about as normal as you think it is to see someone wearing western dress when you go out in the morning. I’m very familiar with the fabric you bought though I never made myself anything of it.

    I worry much less about things like cultural appropriation when I’m on someone else’s turf. If there is nobody from __ culture/background/whatever to speak for themselves, then I need to be careful how I speak. So I would be more concerned about wearing African dress in a situation where there are no Africans — where there is little context and I might be seen as attempting to represent someone else.

    When it’s obvious that I am just one contribution to a gorgeous melée, I don’t worry about it. I wear/do/say whatever is fun.

    People wear stuff because they think it’s nice. The fabric you bought is gorgeous. People who love that fabric from back home will see you wearing it and be glad that you value something that they also value, and they’ll be interested in what you’ve done with it.

    It’s just fabric. It’s not a religion.

    • Posted June 7, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for this comment. I see your point about cultural appropriation when you’re on someone else’s turf, but I think that this voile lace is so uncommon that the people I come in contact with in my town would never realize that it’s African in any way. Heck, until last week, I did not realize that it’s African.

      • Opacity
        Posted June 7, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        Sure, I just said that to suggest that maybe you could be even less concerned about faux pas going into the city in it than you are wearing it in your own neighbourhood.

  19. Sufiya
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    That fabris is just stunning, and so is the colour…I’d agree with Carolyn that because you used it in an entirely different way to that of an African, it is now no longer an issue. Like Opacity said: It’s just fabric [now].

    And I would tend to agree that Africans would probably be pleased and delighted to see what you have done with it! Boy, if I saw something like that in a fabric store I’d want to snatch up a yard or three, too.

    And honestly, I would never have guessed it to be an “African” fabric! I am familiar with mudcloth and kente, but THIS… I have never seen! It may be rude to ask…but HOW MUCH did it cost per yard? Is that machine embroidery motifs I see? And, you did say “rhinestones” were a common feature…stick-ons, from the sound of ’em! How about SEQUINS? Any sequins?

    • Posted June 26, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to this question. The fabric was inexpensive: $10 a yard. The rhinestones are glued on. They probably did have some with sequins, but I’m not sure. The fabric is polyester.

  20. Joy
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Claudine, that is simply breathtaking!
    Your skill is designing a beautiful marriage
    of fabric and style is incredible. You’re so
    innovative and talented… and brave!

    I found fabrics on eBay – Swiss Lace African fabric.
    Don’t know if they resemble at all what you’ve got.
    They all appear to be sold by a person in GA. Maybe
    an email to them would give you more information.

    Thanks for all the inspiration.

    ~Joy~

  21. Joy
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Permalink | Reply

    And ooops .. I forgot the link for the Swiss Voile Lace
    African fabric.

    http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_nkw=african+voile+lace

    ~Joy~

  22. kiki
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi I’m African & posting from Africa & Opacity is right. The dress is beautiful & I believe there’s no problems in you wearing the dress just as long as you feel good & beautiful in it. Its the same as seeing me in a dress that is so not African. Besides the way you made your dress is completely different from the way we make & wear such material so since you designed it differently & its just gorgeous

  23. Posted June 7, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink | Reply

    What a beautiful dress! I also would not have thought of it as African textile, though thinking about I have seen that type of fabric in the African shops in the Garment District and on African women.

    I can’t help with the cultural appropriate but appreciate the responses you’ve gotten. One of my dearest friends spent the last year working in Liberia and brought me many gorgeous textiles, some obviously African and others that could appear more African-inspired than genuine. I love them, but am concerned about whether I can wear some of them. DC has very sensitive race relations. Very.

  24. Posted June 7, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink | Reply

    I too have lots of lovely African “lace” bought in the Gambia. I have never thought of it as culturally inapropriate to covet it and then turn it into clothing for me. I have African batiks too, and tie-dyes – yummy!
    As a Scot, should I be offended at non-Scots wearing tartan (plaid)?

    Sheila (a Scot in Belgium!)

  25. sunnyb64
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink | Reply

    It is fabulous!

    I understand wanting to be careful– I have several articles of clothing with prints that are reminiscent of Indian or Asian prints. And since I do have/had had flute students whose families came here directly from India or Korea or China, I feel like wearing those things around those particular students’ families may be considered inappropriate. So I just don’t wear those clothes on the days I teach those kids, and enjoy them other times!

  26. Posted June 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I love this dress and like most of the comments, I can’t imagine this dress being offensive in the suburbs….. Really some people to pick up a magazine from time to time, it’s beautiful. So I love the style of your dress too; did you design it or use a pattern? If so I’d love to know it?

    • Posted June 8, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Thank you. The bodice is from the book “Simple Chic” by Machiko Kayaki, dress #3. I can’t remember and I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think it is in Japanese. The skirt is a big rectangle that I cut so the selvedge edge formed the hem, then pleated until it fit into the bodice.

  27. Posted June 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The dress is breathtaking. I understand why you might be concerned when the first shopkeeper refused to sell that fabric to you. I’m glad there seems to be a knowledgeable consensus here that you shouldn’t be concerned. I’d love to see it on you — it really is a glorious achievement.

  28. Shams
    Posted June 9, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

    So beautiful, Claudine, and so unusual! I read through the responses and am glad to see that it’s fine for you to wear this without concern!

  29. Posted June 10, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink | Reply

    I love your dress! Beautifully conceived and executed!

    I have spent a few years shopping for African lace in the NYC garment district because I use it to make bags–my own “re-appropriation” if you will. There is no shopkeeper that will sell me less than 5-6 yds at a time–except for Chic Fabrics. Most don’t want to ruin their bolts by leaving just 2-3 yds on the end that they can’t sell. They have explained to me that the typical African consumer buys 5-6 yds at a time to make a traditional garment. This is most likely the reason you were refused. The same used to happen to me, and it can be heartbreaking when you fall in love with a fabric. Luckily you found the odd shopkeeper to be the exception–or maybe you did buy a lot of yardage? Chic is the only place I can get small cuts.

  30. Erika
    Posted June 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Race in America=Hard.

    But, I think you’ve done a beautiful job of going where we need to go – a creative melding of traditions that honors all of them by being beautiful. I would worry more about appropriation if you had not included elements of your own culture (or what I am assuming is your culture! 😉 – the fitted waist and gathered skirt.

    We need to be able to have conversation about race/culture in America, so much of our problem is being afraid to be in conversation. This dress is, well, conversational! Enjoy it.

  31. Hannah
    Posted June 15, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink | Reply

    Late to the party but re:appropriation..a lot of my own concern comes from using something from another culture to sell products. I think if you were trying to commercialize on this it might be a different matter.

  32. Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:25 am | Permalink | Reply

    Its beautiful.Its an imaginative use by a white woman of an African fabric . It isnt a sacred article so I think it is fine Its being used in a context that perhaps it wouldnt be in Africa but so what . When we bring home a souvineer from our travels and put it on shelf arent we doing the same thing . I think that as long as you are honest about the fabrics origin should anyone ask then thats fine . What isnt good for example is when people who have no right to paint in an Aboriginal style and then pass it off as the genuine article. That happens here is Australia at times and causes alot of distress which is regretable .
    What is tertiary fabric supplier?? Mem

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink | Reply

      Your example of the aboriginal painting is a good explanation of the kind of situation I was trying to avoid.

      A tertiary fabric supplier depends entirely on perspective. There are fabric shops where I shop all the time (primary), ones where I shop occasionally (secondary), and ones that I pretty much never set foot in (tertiary). My tertiary could be your primary.

  33. Posted January 15, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I just saw this in your year end wrap up post and this dress is simply gorgeous!!! if i saw it in a store, i would buy it in a heart beat (although it would probably be wayy over my price range). fabulous work! if i can find some similar fabric i would love to copy you 😉

  34. Karen
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi,

    I know I’m late to this post, but I wanted to let you know that I am sitting here in my accounts office wearing an ankara skirt made of fabric from Nigeria- I love love love african fabrics and sew with them all the time. I should add some context here- I am very white! Not just a bit white, but about as pale as a human can be. With red hair! So very un-african. I live in Scotland, which is not the most culturally diverse place I’ve known, and I have never ever had a problem, or even a second look- or in London or Paris, where you meet far more african people. A lot of people won’t think of the fabric as ‘african’ anyway- and those who do, will just love the fact that you appreciate fabric and know how to show it off so well! If you are into sewing and fabric, then you can’t go for long without falling head over heels in love with african fashion and textiles- I wish everyone wore them all the time- I get really bored of black trousers and a white shirt! So no, I think you could (& should!) walk down any main street in any city in the world looking proud and rediant in your dress, and all you would attract is admiration. Well done- the dress is lovely- and thanks for sharing, I find lace the most difficult to interpret so I am always looking for inspiration.

    PS. re: the saleman’s comment- I think he’s just surprised- I buy from a lot of shops where the owners seem a little surprised to see me, and ask questions which tell me they’re a bit confused as to why I’m picking up what I am- but if they ask I just tell them that I was in africa and fell in love with these fabrics and haven’t been able to put them down ever since, and everyone is always fine with that- they understand completely! The only fabric I would hesitate over is kente, or rastafarian colours, as I think there might be traditions behind them that I don’t understand- but then my mother is very strict on how tartan should and shouldn’t be worn and by whom, and which particular tartan, etc, which is no different- and I can’t see her ever being angry if an african person wore the ‘wrong’ tartan. She would just be delighted that a visitor appreciated something she loves from her own culture, and this is the only response I have ever had from africans when I’m wearing ankara or lace. Wear it with pride! And if you haven’t already, try ankara (aka dutch or holland wax)- you will die of happiness.

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