This morning, I came across an Elle Canada online article labeling the dashiki “the new kaftan” and lauding it as "the new it-item of note." I laughed. The dashiki is hardly a new trend – roam the streets of Accra or any other major West African city and you’ll be confronted with dashikis in various styles in a rainbow of colors from sunshine yellow to cerulean blue.
Nor is the dashiki “tribal." Vlisco textile designer Toon van der Manakker designed the iconic motif based on a 19th century Ethiopian noblewoman's tunic. The print was originally known as “Angelina.” While the design is often copied, Vlisco produces the true original.
While I object to the characterization of the dashiki as a “trend,” I hesitate to call its popularization cultural appropriation, the buzzword du jour. In the vein of Magritte’s treachery of images, African fabric (i.e. wax print) isn’t necessarily entirely African. The “African print” that we often see on the streets of West Africa and that experienced has a renaissance in the diaspora, is known by a wide variety of names including “ankara” and “Dutch hollandais.” What we know as wax print or ankara was introduced to Africa by the Dutch, who popularized the Javanese batik following their colonization of Indonesia. The van Vlissingers, a Dutch merchant family, brought the fabric to the masses when they established Vlisco in 1846. During the 19th century, Africans embraced these designs as a form of self-expression. Today, Vlisco continues to be the marker of high-quality batik. The Vlisco Group also owns more affordable African textile brands Uniwax, Woodin and GTP. What is often called "African fabric" is based on an Indonesian design that was commercialized by the Dutch.
The Dashiki as a symbol of African-American history
In the United States, four young businessmen popularized the design when they formed a company called New Breed in 1967. During this era, the black power and white counterculture movements in the United States embraced the dashiki as a symbol of affirmation and “Black in Beautiful.”
The name dashiki originates from the Yoruba word “dan shiki,” which refers to a work shirt typically worn by men. The Yoruba adopted the word from the Hausa “dan chiki.”
The late Gil Scott Heron, a popular African-American musician and spoken word poet in the 1970s and 1980s, wrote in his 1970 novel The Vulture:
'You rilly like them African clothes that N’Bala sells? I mean, the shirts like the one you got on. What’choo call ‘um?'
'It’s called a dashiki, brother. I think they’re better than the white man’s shirts.'
As he mobilized people during the civil rights movement, Marion Barry, who would later become mayor of Washington, D.C. (a city that once bore the affectionate moniker “Chocolate City”), famously wore dashikis.
With this long history, it would be reductionist to merely label the dashiki a “trend.” Celebrities rocking the style are merely late to the party.