Art Deco Textiles in America Part 1: Africana Prints and Non-Western Influences

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It's Textile Month here on The Fashion Historian! Each week this month we'll be bringing you a textile themed post. This week, in Part 1 of a two-part series, learn about how the art of non-Western cultures influenced the explosion of American textile design in the 1920s!

Safari silk titled "Kando" or "Samburu" by Belding-Heminway Co., 1930. Newark Museum, New Jersey. This print depicts African warriors standing behind shields.

In the early twentieth century America had grown a strong industrial business but it had no design aesthetic it could truly call it's own. That would all change in the 1920s when American textile design came into it's own, reflecting an exciting new era of modernism in the country. The search for a uniquely American style began during World War I. American textile designers had traditionally looked towards France for all things fashion, but with France embroiled in a war those European sources of inspiration were cut off. American designers thus began to look for a new, uniquely American aesthetic. As Susan L. Hannel writes, "World War I made the American people realize how dependent they were on Europe for the arts, but jazz music and skyscrapers were the beginning of America's recognition of its own potential for artistic contributions."

Printed silk by the Stehli Silks Corp. titled "Americana Print: Mayan", designed by Charles B. Falls, 1925. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.150.7. Photo by Katy Werlin. This textile pattern was inspired by ancient Mayan art.

One of the major leaders in this search for an American style was Morris De Camp Crawford, a design editor of Women's Wear and an honorary research assistant in textiles for the American Museum of Natural History. Along with Women's Wear editor E. W. Fairchild and Albert Blum, treasurer of the United Piece Dye Works, Crawford began to explore new sources of inspiration for American textile designers. The goal was to end the dependence on French designs and create a new, American aesthetic. To that end, Crawford turned to the ethnographic collections in museums. He approached several museums who were thrilled at the idea of opening up their collections to textile designers for inspiration, and this movement produced a flood of textiles with designed inspired by the art of non-Western cultures. Crawford himself was particularly enamored with the "primitive art" of the New World, and many designers were inspired by artifacts from ancient South American cultures and Native Americans.

Stela Fragment with Glyphs, made in Mexico by the Maya culture, 4th-9th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.412.75.

Seated Figure, made in the Federated States of Micronesia, Caroline Islands by the Satawan culture, late 19th-early 20th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.8.

Tunic, made in Peru by the Moche-Wari culture, 7th-9th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.394.706.

Frog Pendant, made in Costa Rica by the Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991.419.1.

Prestige Panel from the Kuba culture in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sankuru River region, 20th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.271.1.

The art of non-Western cultures was well suited to the Art Deco aesthetic popular in the 1920s and 1930s. The Art Deco style is a pared down aesthetic, featuring simple and clean lines with repeating shapes and gradations. Consider this highly graphic design style and compare it to the objects above. Although these all come from non-Western cultures and many are hundreds of years old, they could all easily fit in with early twentieth-century American aesthetic ideals.

Textile patterns by Mallison and Co. published in American Silk Journal, 1931. The patterns are, from top, left to right: Temple of Angkor, Togo, Madagar, Marrakech, Timbuktu, New Caledonia, and Ubanghi.

Another major figure in the search for an American aesthetic was Ethel Traphagan, head of Ethel Traphagan's School of Design. In March 1929 the American Silk Journal praised her innovation:
"[She was] forever doing notable things to gain for the textile and other industries of her own country, independence int he art of fashioning women's wear and other articles of domestic use, ahd more in mind than merely creating the African silk motif, which has recently taken such a substantial hod upon our people. She saw in this major fashion movement the beginning of the end in our habitual search for adequate dress design abroad. To Miss Traphagen, a slavish dependence upon Europe for dress and other design was the most senseless and intolerable condition in current American art. To her it seemed to be as undesirable. She believed that so long as we depend upon Europe for our art designs, art objects and the pictorial, plastic and manual arts, the great body of American artists would never attain the position in the world to which its impressive talents entitle it- have long ago entitled it."

Congo Cloth, published in Women's Wear, 1923. Brooklyn Museum of Art, Culin Archival Collection.
Series of Patterns in Congo Cloth Representing Modern Adaptations of Designs From Sleeping Mats Used in the Huts of African Negroes.
Designed and Manufactures by Blank & Co., Inc."

As textile designers looked to Non-Western sources for inspiration, the art and design of Africa became one of the most strong influences. By 1930 the American Silk Journal even declared that African prints would bring in "a new era in American fashions." African art had already begun influencing fine art, with Cubism taking direct influence from the style. But it was in the late 1910s and through the 1920s that "Africana" prints would begin to filter through to textile design. In 1923 the Brooklyn Museum of Art held an exhibition titled "Primitive Negro Art". Curated by Stewart Culin, the exhibition showcased art from the Bushongo tribe in what was then the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). To help market the exhibition, Culin commissioned artists to create designs based on the artifacts on display. Feliz Meyer, working with the Blank & Co silk company, designed "Congo Cloth", an extremely popular textile based on patterns from raffia sleeping mats and burial masks.

An advertisement for dresses at Bonwit Teller (a department store) made from Congo Cloth. Women's Wear, April 14, 1923.

The Africana trend continued throughout the decade and into the 1930s. Ethel Traphagan had students design textiles inspired by artifacts she brought home from a trip to Africa in 1928 and C. K. Eagle Co chose some of the student designs for a line of printed silks called "Zanbraza." In 1930 the Beldings-Heminway company released a series of printed silks titled "Safari" designed by Fredeirck Suhr. Inspired by Safari; A Saga of the African Blue by Martin Johnson, the silk patterns were named by Martin's wife Osa and included "Samburu, African war gear; Utunda, circlets made of wild animal teeth; Kando, jungle hunt for leopard; and Tinga-Tinga, fronds of the palm tree." In an advertisment for the silks, Vogue wrote: "Africa, country of amazing contrast, savage and sophisticate, this is the theme of Safari... silks patterned in the keener color, the bolder rhythm of a new adventure." Continuing into the 1930s, in 1931 Malinson and Co produced a series of printed silks with "Barbaric Themes"; the silks were given names such as "Togo", "Marrakech", and "Timbuktu".

A Safari silk fabric titled "Punda" by Belding-Heminway Co., 1930. Newark Museum, New Jersey.

As can be seen by the continued use of the words barbaric, primitive, and savage, the Africana textile trend was heavily influenced by colonialism and racism. It is a prime example of cultural appropriation, with American designers taking artistic influences from the diverse cultures of Africa without awareness of the significance or context of the designs and their place in African culture. Many Africana textiles are based on racist generalizations and stereotypes and the titles of many of the designs accentuate this idea of Western (i.e. white) superiority. The idea of cultural appropriation is new, but it can still be used to understand the past. While these textiles produced in the 1920s were beautiful, it is extremely important to view them through the lens of Western imperialism.

In the second and final post in this series, learn how textile designers took inspiration from modern life and the American experience to contribute to this new American aesthetic! Coming soon!

Further Reading

Hannel, Susan. "'Africana' Textiles: Imitation, Adaptation, and Transformation During the Jazz Age" Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, Spring 2006, 68-103.

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