The calm before the storm: it started during last year’s prom season when Kyemah McEntyre, an eighteen-year-old girl from New Jersey, boldly wore an Ankara print dress that she designed herself to prom. She uploaded images of herself wearing the dress on social media as a celebration of her heritage. Little did she know that she had kicked off a trend. Overnight the picture became an internet sensation, and everyone wanted to incorporate Ankara into their own closet. With one click, the revolution had begun.
Since Kyemah, many young black women in the US have added wax print to their formal wear. The phenomenon was very apparent during this year’s American prom season. Social media was filled with images of girls rocking handcrafted prom dresses that blended pride and confidence with fierce Ankara prints. For African culture to slide its way into a tradition that has historically been marked by fairytale princess dresses or celebrities’ lookalikes, is a testimony to its versatility.
As high schools everywhere are exposed to Africa’s bold colors, the image of elegance has been redefined. The revolution has not only been embraced by young women, but also by men. Contrary to the usual solid color suits, guys are breaking the norms through bright color contrast suits, full African print jackets, or little African print details from bowties to pocket squares.
Kyemah McEntyre ruled 2015, but the Ankara prom dress to go viral in 2016 belonged to eighteen-year-old Makalaya Zanders of Cleveland, Ohio. Although a teacher told Zanders that Ankara might look “tacky,” the trendsetting teen disregarded the advice and picked a show-stopping ensemble that can only be described as flawless. The dress incorporated the typical mermaid silhouette that is often seen during prom, but with an African twist. When she posted pictures of herself on Instagram, they instantly went viral and her story was featured everywhere from Cosmopolitan to Vogue.
The fashion world has finally taken notice of African fashion—aside from prom season and appearances on the red carpet, Ankara has worked its way into the world of fast fashion through popular stores like Zara and Forever 21. Even Etsy, an e-commerce platform focused on handmade or vintage items, has seen a growing business for Ankara print. For most buyers, Etsy has been the place to purchase authentic Ankara print clothing.
Although it has been exceptional to see Ankara infiltrate the fashion industry outside of Africa, most of the wax prints being sold are made in Holland or China. This is ironic because most of the designs portrayed are representative of that shown and worn in many West African countries. History is full of the exploitation and commercialization of African culture and ideas. It is crucial for Africans to be selfish with this commodity. We can no longer let other people exploit our riches. This is the time to support African or Black industries selling Ankara print, to choose authenticity over saving a few dollars. The revolution is our own, it is our opportunity to make small things grow. For Africans in the diaspora we should encourage those who are interested in African print to seek wax prints straight from the continent.
From the embrace of Ankara to natural hair, it’s beautiful to see young black women embrace their roots. As more Africans in the diaspora feel empowered to openly display their love of their culture, misconceptions of African culture are slowly being unraveled, and the image of Africa is being repainted as beautiful. We’ve all known the continent to be stunning, but it is satisfying to see others realize it as well.