While perusing Facebook one day I ran across photos of this INCREDIBLE dress.
It is the epitome of intercultural vintage, a holy grail of clothing!
You all know how much I love combining vintage and different cultures, and this dress is a real vintage example of someone else who had the same idea! Its owner, Robyn, was kind enough to take a few photos for me to share with all of you. A bunch of us in a couple Facebook groups have analyzed it, and I can't wait to share all the cool details with you!
We know this dress came from the estate of a wealthy lady. (She had lots of designer labels for sale, too!) My guess is that this lady traveled to Africa and found this fabric, or perhaps a loved one of hers did and brought this back for her.
Now the fabric is the cool part! It's made of an East/Southern African fabric called a khanga/kanga, and the writing on it is in Swahili. ("Kanga" comes from the word "to wrap" because it's usually worn wrapped like a skirt.) I asked some Swahili-speaking friends what the words on the fabric mean, and it says something along the lines of, "Visit [Pemba] carefully! You may leave in a loincloth and return in a turban." We think this is a proverb with the idea of leaving poor and coming back rich because of the spice trade. (Pemba Island is part of the modern-day Zanzibar archipelago in Tanzania, an area famous for spices.)
We aren't able to see the entire proverb, so "Pemba" is a word we have put in as a guess, but the idea of it is very similar to a Swahili proverb that mentions Pemba Island. The letters in the wrinkles on the bottom left have the right arrangement to say, "Pemba peremba" or "Visit Pemba carefully," too, so that's how we're going to fill in the blanks! Proverb kangas are still common in East Africa today.
We can also confirm the time period it's from by the "God Save the Queen" phrase on the bottom, possibly making this a commemorative piece for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1952. (King George VI ruled before her, so a pre-1952 fabric with "God Save the Queen" on it wouldn't really make sense. Anyone from the UK can feel free to correct me on that if that's a wrong assumption!) Either way, it's at least from 1952 or a bit later.
I also date it to the early to mid 1950s because of the dress details. It has softer shoulders than the late 40s, but it still has a short zipper at the waist, not a step-in zipper like was used more often in the 60s. The almost-a-full-circle skirt and longer length also points to an early 50s "New Look" style.
"God Save the Queen" also helps determine where the fabric is from. The royal roses motif adds to the idea that is a commemorative piece from a British-ruled part of Africa, although roses are popular in African fabric anyway. Knowing that it is from a British-ruled East/Southern African country in the 1950s narrows it down to a few countries:- Kenya
- Tanganyika (Tanzania)
- Northern Rhodesia
Out of these, only three speak Swahili widely: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania.
The idea of the proverb talking about Pemba Island points to it being Tanzanian or Kenyan, since Pemba is right off the coast of both. (Pemba Island wasn't officially joined to Tanzania until the 1960s, so we can't be sure!) Both countries create fabrics like this still.
So this is how we have somewhat solved the mystery of this amazing, 1950s Kenyan/Tanzanian kanga frock! It's such a great example of how cultures affect each other: a British event commemorated in African-style cloth, made into an early 50s Western dress. And the details! Look at the amazing collar, the symmetrical placement of the print; I'm very inspired!
I especially call this intercultural because it really is a blend of two cultures. It isn't an African-themed novelty print where Westerners portrayed Africans; it takes actual African art techniques and combines it with events in the West. You know what's even cooler? Modern kangas still have commemorative prints like this. There are even American president versions with George W. Bush's and Obama's faces on them!
Thanks, again, to Robyn and all my Facebook peeps for sharing the dress with me and helping to solve this mystery!
Have you ever seen/had a piece of intercultural vintage? What do you think of this one? How old do you think the dress is?