Pagne — more than just a few yards of fabric

‘Pagne is at once perceived as traditional and modern, classic and cutting edge, and it is sensuously deployed during special events and for everyday wear.’ NS 3

‘Pagne cloth constitutes a form of archive, where intimate memories are stored, held in reserve, and always ready to be reanimated with life, story, and sensuous materiality. The cloth as archive can also absorb national memories in its capacity to record events and global connections that forge national identity.’ NS 2


On naming

‘Each pagne has a name with the ability to broadcast images about power and politics, beauty and wealth, or about the joyful and complex relations between men and women.’ NS 2

‘A polyvalent term, pagne denotes both the cloth or pattern that women purchase in six-yard-long units in the market and the cloth worn on the body itself.’ NS 2

‘In francophone West Africa, this cloth is referred to as pagne. It is central to women’s clothing and self-making…this type of cloth, it is often said that a woman’s life can be read through the pages she accumulates over the course of a lifetime.’ NS 2

‘Most African women cannot afford to wear wax print every day. But depending on personal means, there is an exception: the ubiquitous pagne. This 2 yard length of fabric is simply tied around the waist so that it covers the legs from hip to ankle. For everyday wear, it complements a Western blouse or T-shirt. The pagne is comfortable, functional and always in fashion. For many women, wax print may be displaced by the cheaper fancy print as the fabric of necessity. In either case, even though the pagne may be old and well worn, it will always be meticulously laundered.

The pagne can also be part of a more formal ensemble, especially in francophone Africa, where elegance is almost a vocation. On top, there are three options: a long, loose-fitting over-garment called a ndoket; a loose marinière; or a tighter-fitting blouse with a low neck, hip flounce and wide sleeves called a taille basse. A matching head-tie, of course, is the finishing touch.’ MR RI 38

‘Wax cloth sits at many frontiers. It is once a commodity, a “social skin” (Turner 1980), an archive,

an image, a text, and a material object with distinct physical properties. As with photographic images, it is impossible to separate the material from the visual, the image from the object.’ NS 11

‘It is an affectively charged material object that animates people and things while it also patterns urban, national and economic spaces such as the street and the market.

The new turn to materialism and materiality has revivified debates in anthropology about the socialness of objects.’ NS 13


‘The aesthetic, material, and semiotic characteristics of cloth matter enormously to its successful circulation and embedding in local processes of consumption and social reproduction. Textiles can be social–even national–skins that bridge the frontier of body and society by connecting a person’s most intimate sphere to the collective and the nation.’ NS 13-14

‘It is this rich material and semiotic quality of cloth–to bring joy, to create story, to generate desire, to have agency, to anchor sentiment and memory–that, when bundled together, makes pagne so special, and hence a subject of ongoing fascination.’ NS 14

Research –
Relph, Magie and Irwin, Robert. 2010. “African Wax Print: A Textile Journey”. Words and Pixels. MR & RI


Sylvanus, Nina. 2016. “Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender & Materiality in West Africa”. The University of Chicago. NS


Images and Illustrations — Judith Gueyfier