Connected \\ March 31, 2023
A Studio Visit With Queen Adeline
For many New Englanders, the return of spring often means a return to wearing color. But elsewhere, bright colors are visibly in fashion year-round. The vibrantly dressed, hard-working women in the street markets of Ghana have been a lasting influence on Queen Allotey-Pappoe. Today, through her company Queen Adeline, she is on a mission to help New Englanders wear comfortable, colorful clothing that makes us feel our best. Her designs are impossible to overlook in the PEM Shop. So, on International Women’s Day earlier this month, a colleague and I paid a visit to her light-filled studio in a former textile mill in Lowell. On a cold, dreary day, Queen Adeline welcomed us, surrounded by her beautiful, traditional Ghanaian block printed textiles.
Warm words of inspiration
“My father always used to say that life is meant to be lived here,” she said “There's no party in the grave. Whilst you're here, you have to live it. That's been my guiding philosophy. Be alive. Be art. I believe life is art, and it's not a science. Be expressive, experiment, give yourself permission to do things.”
Self-expression and body positivity
Queen found that women she was encountering around Boston were often dressed in black, beige and gray and looking uncomfortable in the cut of their clothes. After answering constant questions about what she was wearing, Queen decided that there was a need for timeless silhouettes that are inclusive of all body types.
“I want it to accentuate whatever body type you have,” she said. “I don't want to be caging people in standard boxes. Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel great? Does this color make you come alive? If it does, then yes, we are wearing that, because once you feel comfortable, then you are confident. Once you are confident, you own your stage.”
Going home with one of her bold designs is like wearing a piece of art, said Queen. “We need to live with the art, be the art, feel the art. I believe that style is just a deeper sense of self. Once you're in tune with yourself, then whatever it is that you want to wear, that's what it's going to be. You must feel that it's expressive, and it's a way of living. How do I want my woman to feel? I don't want her to be lost in the crowd.”
PEM’s Social Media Associate Ellie Dolan and Queen Adeline having a laugh. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM
Finding her passion
With a degree in political science, a plan to go to law school and a consulting job, Queen set out to find sustainable clothing brands that were using African prints. “I wasn't going to make clothing, I was doing other things. Real quickly, I realized most of the things that were out there were not conscious about the making process or the sustainable aspect of it. I quickly realized that was a big problem and I don't want to put my name behind something that I could not vouch for. It started as, ‘OK, since I can't find anybody, let me just make a couple of them.’” Then, she decided, “OK, I'm going to go to fashion school myself.”
With clothing often ending up in landfills, wearers of Queen’s designs can feel confident that they are made sustainably from 100% wax cotton print textiles and other biodegradable fibers. With the ability to layer, the clothing can be worn year-round and has lasting style that transcends trends. Any scraps are turned into scarves, belts, jewelry or applique on a dress. These longer-lasting pieces are part of the so-called slow fashion movement, that rejects mass-produced “fast fashion” that doesn’t prioritize sustainability or ethical working conditions for those who make the garments.
"I can't save the whole world right now, but I can make a commitment to stay away from plastics,from polyester,” said Queen, as she explained the history of wax print fabric in Africa. “There are some parts of Africa where they use starch or porridge, or even clay that would resist the pattern,” she said. “And then it's dipped in the dyes, and then you would gather various colors and patterns. That was how it was traditionally made. People are very creative.”
Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.
The wax print process today is more mechanized, but Queen uses imported fabrics from Ghana, working with local tailors in Massachusetts and with textile artists back home to help support the Ghanian economy. “I wanted to bring the beauty out of Africa, to bring it to the world.”
Fabric’s symbols and meanings
Traditionally, the printed fabric held symbols called Adinkra that communicated messages, as well as the mood of the wearer. “Somebody could literally start a civil war by what they wore because it has a lot of hidden messages,” joked Queen, whose logo is three concentric circles, signifying how your actions affect your immediate family, your ecosystem and yourself.
Photos by Dinah Cardin/PEM and by Ellie Dolan/PEM.
White women wearing African designs
“I always have this conversation with Caucasian customers who say ‘This is so beautiful, but I'm afraid to be labeled as somebody who is appropriating culture.’ It's only appropriation when you don't acknowledge where it's coming from and you do not know the tradition and the history behind it,” said Queen.
“You need to be educated and informed about what you have on, so that you can extend the message further. I want you to wear my clothing, and say, ‘This has been made by a wonderful Ghanaian-born designer who is in love with African textiles and she's trying to bridge the gap and she's also sustainability-minded. You should check her out.’ We want to have that nod to the African roots, but give us a seat at that table. When Caucasian people eat Chinese food, we don't ask them, ‘How do you feel about eating Chinese food?’ When they eat Mexican tacos, nobody asks anybody, ‘How do you feel about eating tacos?’ When we wear Italian cotton, nobody asks, ‘How do you feel about wearing Italian cotton?’ When we wear Chinese silk, nobody asks ‘How do you feel about wearing Chinese silk?’ It is an offering – I want African prints to be accessible to the world.”
What women across the world have in common
“I have now lived a third of my life on each continent and we are more similar than we think we are, especially when it comes to women. There is one thing I found true for women in Africa, in Europe and even here in America. It’s that women want to be seen, they want to be heard and they want to know they are making a meaningful difference in society. It doesn’t matter their economic status. Whether they have oodles of money, a countess in England with influence and access to power and money or people who can barely scrape by to eat – and I’ve known people like that here in the United States – or powerful people in boardrooms, they want to know that their contribution matters and they can make a difference in their community and that’s the one thing that’s unique in almost all women that I’ve encountered. We all want to be seen, we all want to be heard and we all want to impact our communities…and that is what is so special about women.”