Join us when African-Print Fashion Now! exhibition co-curator Betsy Quick discusses the histories of African-print cloth and their naming traditions.
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West and Central African peoples have long endowed hand-produced cloths with names, and they continue this tradition with the most beloved African-print cloths. Both traders and customers speak of choosing a cloth for its beauty, but they may also buy and wear a particular design for its name. Vendors give names to motifs in the marketplace and customers disseminate them by word of mouth. A single cloth in different cities or countries can have different names, perhaps with conflicting meanings.
Some names may directly signify the design (Eyes), while others evoke historical events, religious themes, songs, or sounds. Some cloths reference interpersonal relationships or chiding reminders of appropriate behavior (You Go Out, I Go Out). Other names offer proverbial wisdom (Household Gravel), even though they bear no visual connection to the iconography at all.
Some women say that a name enhances the value of a particular cloth, because only established, named designs have prestige and economic value. In today’s fast-changing world, however, younger women often prefer the most fashionable and ephemeral unnamed designs.