A brief history of Dutch wax prints

A brief history of Dutch wax prints

The fascinating history of Dutch wax prints came about more by accident than design. In 19th century, the Dutch were not only established players in the gold and silk trade routes in Africa but had extended the empire into the Far East.

They were particularly interested in Java’s (Indonesia) long history of batik printing with a view to exporting it to Europe and also back to the Javanese. However the Javanese technique was both labour intensive and expensive and a cheaper mass market solution was sought.

Eventually the Dutch created a mechanised printing process but were not able to eliminate the rather quirky crackle effect in the designs. As a result, the Javanese considered the prints inferior to their own and the fashionable Europeans found a little too exotic for their genteel tastes.

Meanwhile, on the African continent, despite its own rich history of textile design, missionaries and indentured soldiers known as “black Dutchmen” were slowing introducing Dutch prints as goods and souvenirs.

With no Javanese or European market, the Dutch landed in Ghana, where the interest in their prints made them an instant success.

main dutch image
photo: Anna Fayemi styling: Stephanie Mousse hair MUA:Sandra Bermingham model: Sherene McNichols


In the early days, according to Vlisco, a leading a wax print manufacturer, they accepted commissions from wealthy Africans who wanted prints that depicted local folklaw, symbols and colours. The popularity of these local designs helped to boost the wax print industry into a very lucrative trade.

Traditional designs of Dutch wax prints either have literal meanings or depict local customs, beliefs or proverbs in pictorial form. Some designs are commissioned to celebrate a special event or even show solidarity to a political moment.  The designs push the boundaries of colour and fizz with extremes: vivid dramatic colours against bold / abstract / geometric or figurative designs. Some designs were held in such regard they became part of a dowry package or became celebrated Dutch wax "classics".

tors ahonnee african disk

'Tu sors, je sors' ("You fly I fly")
depicts a bird escaping and is worn by newlyweds to indicate the escaping of the cage.

'Ahonnee pa nkasa'
means ‘precious beads make no noise'

'Gramophone Apawa'
an old 1960s record album design, reminiscent of the good old days when music on disk was reserved for the privileged rich people in society.

The Dutch eventually went on to create their own designs, but it is the early African influence that played an important role in the classic wax print designs we still enjoy.

Today, the best, most authentic African prints are still to be found in Ghana. They form part of the oral tradition and have a direct connection to locality.  It is a tradition that is distinctly unique to the African heritage and one that should always be celebrated.

naomi wax pose


Main photos: Anna Fayemi - styling: Stéphanie Moussé - hair and make up: Sandra Bermingham - model: Sherene McNichols
“code Noir” http://jshc.org/emergence-of-the-martiniquan-gwan-wob/

EK Howard - Symbolic significance of Arican Prints: A dying phenonmenon in contemporary print designs in Ghana

facebook share