Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Beautiful Ones

After a long day of sightseeing in Saint Louis, Senegal, Jamal and Jameelah have kicked off their shoes

and stretched out to rest. 

“Wake up Mrs. Johnson,” Jamal called first thing that morning, having donned the new robe and wooden beads he bought in the market the day before. 


The long flight from Houston following their wedding reception had wiped Jameelah out, but she put on her matching boubou, head wrap, and necklace of brightly colored wood beads and joined her husband on the veranda for breakfast. 

“It’s still hard to believe he’s mine,” she mused, stretching out a dainty wrist adorned with beads to touch her man.

Vanessa of Van’s Doll Treasures has forced my hand again by introducing her “Auntie Paulette” doll and including a link to my dormant Yatimi store so I thought I would take the opportunity to explain how the doll I gave her came to be.

I saw a pressing need for dolls that would reflect a positive self-image for little black girls. Rather than one of a kind art dolls that might sit on a girl’s dresser and never be touched, I wanted to make play line dolls that little girls could dress up and play with in all kinds of scenes.  I set out to design a line of African inspired fashion dolls and quickly ran up against the problem of how to produce them at an affordable price.  I could not pay myself even minimum wage for the hours and hours I invested in sewing clothes and making wigs, but even when I undercut myself, parents were reluctant to buy the dolls I had produced for young girls who would likely tear the doll up and loose the lovingly detailed little shoes and accessories I had made.

Then the notion of outsourcing the production came to me.  I made an arrangement to have African-style outfits hand dyed and sewn on the mother continent and sent a doll dressed in a model outfit to a women’s artisan collective in Ghana.  In my instructions I said
I would like twenty four (24) outfits like the doll is wearing.

Each outfit consists of three pieces – boubou (over dress), lappa (under garment), and head wrap.  Thus there are seventy-two (72) pieces in all.

I would like the outfits made up in cotton fabric with a purple fern batik print on six different colored backgrounds (pink, blue, yellow, purple, green, and orange).  See the attached swatches.  

I got four or five different colors, none of which matched the swatches.  To my eye the colors also did not coordinate well.  In art class I was taught to think in terms of complementary and analogous colors.  I had intended for the outfits to coordinate pieces in complementary colors (i.e. pink and green, yellow and purple).  My go between explained that for Ghanaians, if two garments have the same pattern (i.e. the repeated fern print), then they match, regardless of what color they are.

My go-between had also explained that Ghanaians don’t use sewing patterns, but I had attached a copy of my patterns anyway, hoping the supplier could at least use them for reference.  Further, I had designed the outfits so that they would be simple to sew, even without electric powered sewing machines.  The sewing students ignored my pattern and cut the garments in a wide variety of sizes.  I ended up using some of the boubous for male dolls because they seemed too large for the women.

The batik pattern I designed for the fabrics is based on the adkinkra symbol known as Aya, the fern.  Ferns can grow in any kind of soil so the Aya symbol stands for persistence, which has been an essential theme in my life.  In order to keep the pattern in 1:6 scale, I specified that “The ferns should be no larger than one inch (2.5 centimeters)” but the ferns on the fabric I got back were larger than I had indicated they should be. 

Additionally, I had suggested that it would be simpler to use purple thread matching the purple ferns for all the seams – “Then the thread will add a decorative contrast note to the garments,” I explained. The sewing students used a variety of different thread colors, which do not “match” or complement the color of the garments.  It appears they simply used what was on hand.

Thus, despite black nationalist assumptions that Africans on the continent and in Diaspora share the same culture and consciousness, my effort to have African style dolls made on the mother continent as a means of de-colonizing African American perceptions of beauty encountered many difficulties in cross cultural communication.  My target market and I share a positive stereotype of Africa as “authentic.” The Ghanaian women see all Americans as rich.  Indeed I suspect they may have known that they could not produce what I asked for at the price I offered, but they may not have been willing to say so for fear of losing the contract. 

In the end, I was pleased with the Ghanaian outfits.  I felt that the outfits I made reflected a romanticized “Africa of the heart” while the outfits they made represented what ordinary people might wear on a day-to-day basis.  In this sense I could see the end product as a collaboration with the Ghanaian women in which they asserted their own aesthetic vision and thereby enriched my idealized designs.

À Bientôt


  1. The Beautiful Ones have shared a beautiful story. I love their woven sandals.

    Do you plan to sell the fashions separately or will you keep them to dress the dolls you sell?

    I browsed your Yatimi store and was impressed by your doll offerings. Will separates, such as sandals and wigs be added to the store?


  2. You know I waited a long time to share ny doll. I was trying not to put you on the spot again, but I felt like it was long overdue for her to make her appearance. Don't forget to email the information about my doll, so that I can post it with more images of my African beauty. Thanks.

  3. Hi Debbie and Vanessa,

    I am glad Vanessa revealed the doll I gave her because it pushed me to tie up some loose ends I've been meaning to attend to for the last three months.

    As for Jamal's woven sandals, they are very labor intensive so I don't think I will sell them separately. I have been working on other styles of sandals that I can produce in less time to sell separately. I have also been working on some simpler wig designs but my dolls like the new styles so much they want them in twelve colors! Maybe after I get the Garoul sisters off my back I can add a line of wigs to my store.

  4. I don't know about you Debbie, but limbe dolls seem to be procrastinating on the selling of her wigs. She is showing those classic symptoms of coming up with all kinds of excuses. I heard that "I have to make them in 12 colors, before I can sell them" last week and I pulled out my violin and started playing it. LOL!

  5. Okay... but I think your store desperately needs some separately-sold items, especially wigs. You could show images of the styles, take preorders with a 25% nonrefundable deposit, and allow 2 to 4 weeks for delivery, with the balance due when ready to ship. I'm just saying...

    As Nike, or is that, Vanessa, says "Just do it!"