ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ It's a must at anniversaries, births and funerals. No bride-to-be would consider herself engaged without at least four pieces.

What else would thousands of African women wear to greet the pope or the president? Everyone on this continent knows: colorful, wax-printed cloth adorned with anything from his sweet smile to a favorite flower.

Such fabrics are widely available in both the clamoring outdoor markets and chic shops of Abidjan, which is renowned for its cloth trade. And now they are found on fashion runways in Paris and New York. The striking designs and rich hues of wax-printed cottons are selling like mad in the West.

``Ethnic is hot,'' said Ivorian-born designer Eric Maurice, who owns the Nu Nubian gift shop and mail-order business in Los Angeles and buys 80 percent of his textiles in Ivory Coast.

Maurice expects about $1.2 million in sales from his Christmas line, which includes stocking and tree decorations made from wax-print cloth.

The effect is achieved through an elaborate process that involves tracing the desired design _ famous faces, flowers, the geometric patterns of traditional mud cloth _ onto a piece of fabric and then poking thousands of tiny holes between the design's lines. Hot wax seals the image, which is dyed or painted the desired colors.

Wax-printed fabric _ known in Ivory Coast as ``pagne'' _ originated in Indonesia and found its way to Africa via Dutch colonialists at the beginning of the century. It quickly became more popular than the indigenous hand-woven cottons, whose production is more expensive and time-consuming.

Demand soars with changes in the political climate, the biggest orders coming for elections and official visits by dignitaries. But the traditional culture of pagne centers around the woman.

Forget the flowers; husbands and boyfriends say ``I love you'' with pagne. A future bridegroom wouldn't dare propose marriage without a couple of gift-wrapped pieces along with the customary bottles of gin.

Thus clothed, the women are ready for their traditional roles as lover, wife, mother and homemaker. That's why most young women shed their modern clothes as they grow older.

``Wearing pagne is a sign of maturity,'' said Patrick Liversain, director of Ivory Coast French Co., the oldest producer of wax prints in the country. ``Jeans and other clothes are OK until you get married. Afterwards they prefer to wear wax. It's a sign of womanhood. It makes them respected.''

During a typical year, a traditional West African woman buys or is given one piece (12 yards) of hand-painted wax print and two ``fancies,'' the less expensive, machine-printed pagnes. The machine prints sell for the equivalent of $12 for a six-yard piece, compared to $30 for local hand-painted cloth.

Many prints are named after the presidents and politicians, animals or flowers that adorn the cloth. Others are named for events and holidays. Some carry the faces of celebrities like Michael Jordan or the ubiquitous red-and-black Marlboro label.

To commemorate Pope John Paul II's African visit in September, more than 5,000 bolts of cloth were printed with the smiling face of the pontiff amid floral patterns and a gold crucifix.

When the ruling Democratic Party of Ivory Coast held its national convention in August, the required garb were dresses and shirts printed with the chubby face of President Henri Konan Bedie and the green, white and orange colors of his party.

Personalized prints, emblazoned with advertising logos and personalities, have become as common on West African streets as vanity license plates in L.A.

The way of wearing a pagne, wrapped around the hips and tied at the waist, can be both provocative and practical. ``Generous behinds and tummies are easier to hide with pagne, especially since African women have a habit of putting on weight after babies,'' said Aurelie Amoakon, a fashion designer.

Pagne also measures a woman's dignity and wealth. After a woman dies, it is customary for the family's female elders to go through her belongings. The more pagne pieces she has stored in her bedroom trunk, the greater her esteem.

Similar to the Western woman's family silver and china, pagnes are handed down from mother to daughter.

``The colors may fade, the fabric wears thin, but the original design will last as long as the pagne does, '' says Jean-Pierre Quillet, chief designer at Woodin, Abidjan's top fabric store. ``The story of pagne never ends.''