In the mid-19th century, several Dutch and British entrepreneurs began industrially producing Indonesian batik cloth. Merchant Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen soon became market leader with Vlisco. How this kind of fabric made its way to the African continent is shrouded in controversy.
Some interpretations advocate bad commercial results in Indonesia due to an inferior quality, which lead to the search for new markets in other colonies; others argue that merchant ships, on their way back to the Netherlands, stopped in West African locations where this cloth quickly became popular – soon, it hardly ever reached the Dutch market it was originally intended for. The fact that these fabrics are regarded today as traditionally African clearly demonstrates their impact in the continent. The cloth’s significance is closely connected with the characteristics of the African textile market and the social role of fashion. While most people in the west buy clothes that are ready to wear, most Africans still prefer tailored, made-to-measure clothing. In this context, the cloth and its patterns gain a potentially high symbolic value. Fabrics are specially designed for occasions such as christenings, weddings and funerals, and worn by all the guests at the celebration either as a pocket handkerchief or a festive gown or suit. Any remaining cloth is saved for future generations.
Dutch manufacturer Vlisco still plays a dominant role in the African market. Dutch wax, as it is called, is currently experiencing a fashion revival, despite the market gradually becoming cluttered with cheap goods from China. Patterns are being newly combined, unorthodox cuts created and exchanged across the world. Many young designers are using Dutch wax for their designs. Simultaneously, the fabric – a particular colonial remnant – has become a subject of critical discourse, such as in the 2008 article “The ‘African Print’ Hoax” by Tunde M. Akinwumi, which appeared in the Journal of Pan-African Studies and caused quite a stir.