Phantastic Phiber Phun in Philadelphia

Last week I got to go to Philadelphia for the first time, tagging along with my husband on one of his business trips.  As usual, we had very short notice beforehand, and just a few days to spend there.  But we had a great time and I managed to pack in a lot of art and textile viewing!

We got into town on Monday, Labor Day, in the afternoon, and walked around just looking at many of the historical sites.  A highlight of the trip was meeting my blog friend the Dancing Professor in person that night!  She had kindly emailed me a list of attractions she thought I would like best, and then met us for an early dinner in one of her favorite hang-outs.   I enjoyed the food, beer, and conversation, and I appreciate so much that she took time to guide us around her city.

Tuesday morning my poor husband had to do actual work, and I walked two miles the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  There was so much to see, and parks with little cafés every few blocks, so I could have had a more leisurely walk, with some people-watching stops in lovely shady places, but I was in a hurry to get to the art!

The PMA’s Perelman Building is devoted to fashion and design, so that is where I went first.  The current exhibition is “Creative Africa”, and I was glad to get to learn about African textiles.

I was drawn first into a gallery glowing with color and pattern — “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage”, an exhibit of African wax prints and designer fashions made from them. (I had brought a small unreliable camera so I didn’t get any pictures of my own.  But Hyperallergic did an amazing, illustrated article so you can see everything here.)

Until last year, I had never heard of wax prints.  Then at the International Quilt Festival, I had bought some from a small Fair Trade booth.

Wax prints

Wax prints

The misspelled label “guranteed” gave me a clue that this might be a knock-off of something more authentic.

I learned more about wax prints this past spring when I read the book Indigo by Catherine E. McKinley.  It had struck me as a sort of Eat, Pray, Love of the textile world — it is more about one woman’s adventures while searching for her heritage than it is about the history or process of indigo dyeing itself, but I had enjoyed the glimpses it gave me into various African cloths and cultures.

Early in the book, Catherine is shopping for cloth with her Ghanian hostess, Eurama.

Later, we three visited the cloth stores in Makola. “This is proper-proper Holland,” she said, pointing to cloths that could only be called African, lining a glass case….  “Holland, my lady!”she exclaimed, pointing to the finished edge of the cloth. “100% Guaranteed Real Dutch Wax. Vlisco.  That is the finest!   Then GTP — Ghana Textiles Printing.  This is Vlisco too, but it’s made here in Ghana, at Tema Harbor.  GTP is second.  Then we have what we call ‘small Holland.’  These are the copies that the Nigerians and Chinese and Indians make…

“…your spirit demands Holland!”  She pointed to the edges of cloths in a brilliant colored stack, the fold of each six- and twelve-yard piece hard and hefty like the spine of a book, and called out their names.

“‘ Capable husband.'”

“‘Sorry, I’m taken.'” …

“‘Your foot, my foot.’ Or, ‘When my husband goes out, I go out.'”…

“‘ABC.’ Suukuu nko na nyamsa nko. ‘Attending school does not mean one will be wise.'”

Catherine E. McKinley in Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World, pp. 42-44

So when I walked into the gallery, I did know that even though these fabrics are associated with African fashion, they were originated by European companies, and have a long and often controversial history.  Starting in the mid-1800s, Dutch companies copied Javanese batik designs and tried to sell mass-produced imitations back to the Javanese.  The Dutch had found that they could use a printing machine to quickly apply the dye resist, if they used a resin instead of wax.  But the Javanese did not like the resulting crackled look.   Instead of modifying their printing process, the Dutch tried marketing the prints elsewhere, in West Africa, where they found immediate success and remain popular to this day.  The English were not far behind in producing wax prints for this market.

Even though the fabrics were produced in Europe, they really came alive in the African marketplace.  As the exhibition website explains, “Printed cloth leaves Vlisco’s factory identified only by a stock number.  The female traders who sell the cloth in open-air markets and their customers name the patterns after proverbs, current events, politics, religion, and material culture.”  Names can vary from one town to the next.

By Alexander Sarlay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Alexander Sarlay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The gallery walls were hung with poster-size pieces of Vlisco fabric — historic, vintage, and modern.  One of the fabrics on display was the ABC pattern mentioned in the excerpt from Indigo above, and you can see it in this wonderful 1963 photo .  I wish the exhibit had included historical photos like that, but no.  I found this one in the PMA’s online collection.

By themselves the swatches would have come across as not much more than ads for the sponsor, but in the center were fashion creations that took the exhibit into the world of art.  Seeing how designers had combined several fabrics or arranged motifs to place emphasis was inspirational.

According to the exhibition website, these fashions were created by European and African designers and by Vlisco’s in-house designers, but it doesn’t give any more details on how they were chosen.  I don’t know whether they were part of a design challenge or an invitational, whether they could request a vintage fabric to be reprinted or had to create based on fabric they were given.

One designer, Walé Oyéjidé, is from Philly, and asked to be part of the exhibit.  There is a wonderful interview with him here.  He eloquently expresses opinions that I share:

For better or worse, we (as human beings and as artists) are all products of the triumphs and tragedies of our shared past. Over time, I’ve become less infatuated with the notion of cultural ownership. It is more interesting to me to acknowledge the mixed origins of the things that influence us (in this case, textiles) while using those old things to create something new.

designer Walé Oyéjidé, quoted for the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition “Creative Africa”

I love to buy related books when they are available, to sort of extend the exhibition.  This time I bought  African Wax Print: A Textile Journey, by Megie Relph and Robert Irwin.  Including far more than just Vlisco’s story, it has history, technique, uses in Africa, and artworks inspired by wax prints. It is written in a conversational tone, with huge color pictures on every page.  It was a delightful book to read over a cup of coffee in the museum café.

The next day, as we were waiting in the airport for our flight home, I wandered over to another terminal to see an art installation there.  I saw a woman wearing a perfect African wax print outfit walking toward me, and asked her if I could take her picture.  She smiled and said, “Why?” and as I was trying to explain that I had just seen clothing like hers in a museum and wanted a picture to illustrate my blog, I realized that she was not understanding me, and that it was possible she was actually from Africa.  If only I had been carrying the wax print book around with me!

She tried to call her daughter over to translate, but her daughter was understandably impatient about getting out of the airport, and beckoned her to come on.  With my unreliable camera I didn’t know if I could even get a picture, so I didn’t take any more of her time.  We exchanged rueful smiles and went our separate ways.  Maybe she will tell her family about the crazy lady that accosted her in the airport, but I hope she knows I was just trying to express my appreciation of her fashion choice!

Next time:  More Textile Exhibitions in Philly

Some resources:



The exhibition will be up until January 22, 2017.  If you don’t think you’ll be able to get to Philadelphia, you can see a slide show on the PMA website.