Saturday, April 18, 2009


Pagne refers to the colorful, patterned, fabric everyone wears here. I believe it is based on the original cultural dress, but it is now manufactured en masse. It is sold pre-cut to six yards. I cannot explain why all fabric is sold in yards, but tailors measure you in centimeters.

To have an outfit made of pagne, and therefore look well integrated, you first go to the market and pick a pagne design. There are plusieurs choices, and I could spend all day at the market admiring them (though there are the appallingly tacky choices). Once you’ve chosen your pattern, you bargain for the price. There are many qualities of pagne, and the prices reflect that. They range from 4,000 cfa (eight dollars) to 20,000 cfa (forty dollars) or even more. If I ever fell in love with a fabric I would consider paying up to 10,000 cfa, but so far I have stuck between 5,000 and 7,000.

Once you’ve bargained the price, you take the pagne to a tailor. The tailor’s shop usually has poster collages of Cameroonian fashion, and you can point to a style you like. Then the tailor measures you, and you schedule a time to pick up the finished product. Once you come back, you try it on to check if adjustments are needed. Then you pay and take your garment home.

Cameroonians favor big sleeves (the poofy and the long-flowy are very popular styles), and decorative necklines. Americans tend to prefer their sleeves more subdued, (especially when the fabric is already so expressive!) However, since the tailors never write down anything but your measurements, they seem to often forget the request for something boring. This, and their artistic pride, often leads to a garment nothing like you pictured. It takes some time to find a tailor who will embrace our dull fashion sense, and make quality pieces.

I bought a sewing machine and have experimented with my own seamstress abilities. I’m just as good as a mediocre tailor here, and I like controlling the project. The best part of sewing with pagne is choosing how to incorporate the pattern into the overall design.

One way people celebrate here is to buy the pagne manufactured for a specific holiday. While festive, this pagne usually is not the prettiest, in my eyes. It often consists of a poorly chosen background color, and a series of drawings depicting the holiday’s theme. The drawings are splashed around the pagne with no real structure, and bear an uncanny resemblance to clip-art. Special pagne is manufactured for annual holidays: Women’s Day, Mother’s Day, Teacher’s Day, Rural Women’s Day; to celebrate unique occasions: the pope’s recent visit; and to celebrate certain people: the Virgin Mary, President Paul Biya, and Francoise Mbango Etone (who won Cameroon Olympic Gold:,101257). I’d say a head-to-toe ensemble of Olympian pagne is a pretty outspoken souvenir.

1 comment:

  1. That's a very interesting post, Carol. Put up some photos when you can. The article about the Gold Medal winner was inspiring!