'The wildness of color and fantasy of design of these cotton prints is the most striking thing' - Ernie Pyle (1943) on Ghanian Fashion

A while back I came across an incomplete reference to an article in the US American Negro Digest about, allegedly, a Nigerian student in that country being astonished that not all Americans are cowboys. Of course, I had to follow up on that. The other day, the relevant volumes of the magazine finally arrived at my local library. Unfortunately, they came on microfiche.


I admit I abhor that technology. I don't know if it's the technology as such, the particular reading machines here at the library or my inaptness in fiddling with the film and operating machines. Most likely the latter, I admit. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the technology combines the worst of both worlds – like digitised editions of books and journals you cannot purposefully flick through pages as you can with an old fashioned paper book nor can you search a microfiche copy for relevant key words the way you can most digitised editions; instead, you have to dutifully scroll through from one end to the other – in this case 4 volumes of 12 issues each. That rather annoys me. So, I may have been more prone towards distractions than I usually am when I look for relevant bits and pieces in books, book chapters or articles. In this case, my distractions took the form of the jokes on under the heading African Ways, which unfortunately were mostly not to my taste, and any article that promised to discuss any aspect of African or Nigerian arts and cultures. There weren't many (fair enough, this was after all an American journal). But, among those there were some gems. To improve my mood I took more copious notes on them than they strictly warranted. 
So, let me put those to some use by sharing some of them with you. Today, let's start with this one: Pajamas A La Gold Coast by Ernie Pyle (Negro Digest, 1943, Vol. 1(10), 19-20)[1] Pyle, it seems, was equally impressed and shocked by Ghanaian fashion.  On the one hand, he seems to have delighted in the multi-coloured palette of  Ghanaian textiles.

'As soon as a coast Negro gets home from work he changes form the ordinary shorts and undershirts in which he usually works into native dress. That consists of nothing but yards and yards of wildly bright cotton print, thrown over one should and draped around the body.

The wildness of color and fantasy of design of these cotton prints is the most striking thing about the Central African natives to me. To see a village street full of Negroes late in the afternoon is to see something so beautifully colored you can't believe it's true.

From babies to old men, everybody is garbed in some vivid hue. They aren't' in stripes or in checks or even in solid colors; they give the appearance of being a million colors thrown onto a piece of cloth willy-nilly.

The riotous colors sort of get in your blood …'

On the other hand, having been raised on a more muted fashion palette, he felt overwhelmed by them. This is what he wrote about the pyjamas he had made from textiles he had bought on the market.

'Three days later my monstrosities were ready. They were really wonderful. … Personally, I haven't slept well since I got [my new pyjamas]. They are louder than a London air-raid siren, and have everything in them except the Battle of Gettysburg. They are a screaming explosion of birds, flowers, castles, snakes, palm trees, the great earthquake of 1934, elephants, boats, pointing fingers and evil eyes. I hope they last till I get back home again. Then I can say I'm shell-shocked – and prove it.'

I am not particularly interested in the history of textiles in Nigeria, Ghana or anywhere else in Africa – beyond occasionally acquiring them for sowing projects. So, there is very little that I can add to these paragraphs. I simply liked them and in particular that sentence that described the variety of pattern that Pyle encountered and hinted that they – even then – took inspiration from history and the news (not that this will surprise serious historians of African textiles, I suspect). And, after I bored you with my frustrations about microfiche I thought I may as well leave you with some lovely description of some beautiful Ghanaian textiles.






[1] These are, as the magazine's title suggest, 'digested' i.e. abbreviated reports. This one was originally published by the Chicago Sun on 13 June 1943.

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