Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pagnes 101

“Pagne” is a French word that is used in West Africa to refer to a rectangle of cotton cloth measuring approximately 45 inches wide and 67 inches long (about 1 metre by 2 metres). Here in Burkina, they exist in two main forms: a heavy fabric handwoven on a narrow loom and colored with indigo dyes or a manufactured wax print. The second variety is far more popular despite the fact that it is a relatively recent tradition.

About 150 years ago, Dutch traders were looking to do business with the people of the Gold Coast (now called Ghana) for reasons apparent in the name. At first, they tried trading cheap printed fabrics from Indonesia, but these were rejected by the Africans as too flimsy and unattractive. So, the Dutch developed a cloth adapted specifically to the tastes of West African market - the Wax Pagne was born! It was a heavier grade of cotton and printed with bold, colourful designs. It caught on and quickly became a traditional favourite throughout the sub-continent.

Today, the so-called “Holland Wax” and its imitations are made throughout West Africa. Senegal is a major supplier, but even here in Burkina there is Fasotex making local patterns. They used to be known as Faso Fani, but were notorious for the low quality their fabrics. And African women are VERY picky about the quality of their pagnes and accept nothing shoddy! So, the factory was sold and re-fitted and the new fabrics seem to be acceptable to the local ladies

The patterns of pagnes are amazing. There are geometrics, florals and even designs based on household objects like brooms , fans, and cell phones! There are political pagnes printed with the face and name of local candidates and special event pagnes printed up with the logo and date of conferences and festivals. Even better, you can easily have pagnes custom-printed! Wealthier people often do this for a funeral, having pagnes printed with the photo and name of the deceased. Everyone going to the funeral will purchase (if they can possibly afford it) some of the fabric and have funeral garb made from it!

Above is a special pagne that was printed for a school.

If they can’t afford to have a special motif printed for their event, the folks here love to choose a pagne pattern for their wedding or special event and then have everyone attending buy some of the fabric, so that everyone can have matching outfits. This is considered very, very cool.

But the pagne isn’t just for special events. It’s the workhorse of West Africa!

First of all, it is a basic wrap skirt. Every woman, rich or poor, owns at least one simple rectangle of this cloth. Most own two. You need one to form the basic skirt . The second is used as a baby carrier, sunshade, dust protection, cushion when you carry stuff on top of your head, and when not in use, it serves as a second modest covering over your hip to knee area.

The wealthier woman buys three pagnes (measures) of the same cloth at a time. Then she will have a tailor sew her a “complet”. This means a long skirt, often lined, with a matching top. One pagne is left as rectangle and hemmed at the edges. This “extra” pagne serves as an additional layer OVER the stomach to thigh area of the outfit. This is often called a “petite pagne” and is vital for ladies in a position of respect. A teacher, for example, would definitely wear an extra layer over her tailored skirt or pagne. (NB: As I’ve said several times in this blog, it’s important to keep the hip to knee area well-covered. It’s vital for women, but it also goes for men. Please, please, please don’t come to this country and wander around the streets in your shorts or short skirts. It is SO disrespectful and the Burkinabé are so kind. Please don’t.)

The West African complet can be a hard outfit for the non-African to pull off. It can feel hot and confining, as it is usually lined and often tightly cut to show off womanly curves. There are looser styles, but they often look and feel like pajamas or maternity wear, IMO. I think the easiest and most fun way to wear a pagne is the most common way- as a wrap skirt. Once you get the hang of it, it’s very simple and comfortable. Plus it will get you lots of compliments and make it easy to stike up conversations with people other than street vendors trying to sell you tourist junk.

How does it work? It’s best if you ask a Burkinabé lady to help you. You’ll giggle a lot and have a good time as she gives you pointers on how to make it come out even and not fall off of you in public.

But here are some vital basic hints:

  1. Hold one of the short ends to the RIGHT side of your body, haul the fabric around your back and overlap it over the front. The loose front end will be on your LEFT hip. Do NOT do this the opposite way, or people will mock you. Nicely. But still.
  2. The top of the pagne is then rolled down. Very thin people can tie the two top corners together. But most women just tuck it under. If you watch women here, you will see that readjusting the pagne is a common, frequent gesture. They are re-tucking and tightening. This is normal- fussing with your pagne is not a sign the you're doing it wrong.

  1. Get the two raw ends of the pagne sewn so they don’t unravel over time. It will cost maybe 25 cents to have this done by a tailor, depending on where you live. The long edges of the fabric are already finished and should NOT be hemmed. There is usually writing on these edges denoting the manufacturer. This is considered good and should not be hidden.

  1. I recommend that novices, those easily scared and the accident prone get two long strings sewn onto the to the top two corners of the pagne. You wrap, tie and then fold the top over to hide the strings. This is a very secure system and you can’t go wrong.

  1. If you are going to be riding a bike or motor scooter while wearing this, you will need TWO pagnes (or a pair of bike shorts or a slip underneath) To prevent your top flap from flying open too far, you’ll want to wrap a second pagne around your tummy to thigh area. You just fold the second pagne in half, so it’s only knee length and you wrap it like the basic pagne. Women that can't afford a second pagne, or are using it to hold a baby ride their bikes with one hand. The other hand clutches the front of the skirt closed. They are good at it. (NB: Frankly, for bike riding, I go with capri pants and a tunic that hits me mid-thigh. It's modest and so much easier. But if you will be teaching out in a village, for example, this might not be the best solution for you. It would probably be better to wear a pagne and develop your skills...........There's lots more to say...... So, tomorrow our course in Basic Pagneology will continue!

1 comment:

Benoit Lescarbeau said...

Very interesting piece of fashion history. I'll print your two part article for the missus.