Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Bickford, Kathleen E. “What’s in a Name: The Domestication of Factory Produced Wax Textiles in Cote d’Ivoire.” Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 22–24, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1995), pp. 39–44.


Copyright © 1994 Kathleen E. Bickford


In a frequently evoked passage from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare asks "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Yet, as Romeo and Juliet tragically come to learn, human beings make much of names. Indeed, one's name is a significant part of one's social persona; it can describe who we are, it can join us and separate us from others, and it can link us to the past. In a sense, when we are named we are given an identity. Describing the complexities of naming for the Wamakua of Tanzania, J. A. R. Wembah-Rashid states, "When the newborn passes the midwife's scrutiny, it is declared human, a baby. This is when it is given its first name . . ." Similarly, for those of the Christian faith christening—that is, the giving of a name—at baptism, is part of the ritual of acceptance into the church. For the Wamakua as for Christians and many others the act of naming signifies that a person has been welcomed in, becoming part of a family, a community, a society.

In Cote d'Ivoire names inspired by daily life, popular wisdom, and contemporary events are given to the motifs of factory printed batik textiles, commonly referred to as "wax." This practice is rooted in the treatment of other kinds of luxury textiles in the region. Asante and Ewe artists in Ghana; Baule, Dyula, and Senufo artists in Cote d'Ivoire; and Bamana artists in Mali are among the weavers and dyers who have a long history of referring by name to the individual motifs and overall patterns of the cloth they produce. In this paper I will discuss the importance of naming in the context of wax textiles in Cote d'Ivoire. I will demonstrate that the naming of motifs constitutes a strategy for making mass-produced cloth meaningful, especially to women, by giving it broad-based cultural relevance. Further, I will show how names are employed in linking new designs with those designs considered classics, authenticating the new designs through historical precedence.