“You cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.”
Following these opening remarks in a 2012 Guinness Beer commercial, everyday laymen, dirtied from their work and dusty surroundings of the Congo, transform into exquisitely dressed individuals who reemerge into the city donning three-piece designer suits and authentic crocodile shoes. This collective of Congolese men are the sapeurs, members of the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People (Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes) who regard themselves as “persons who create ambience—atmosphere makers (Downey 2011:3).
Imitation or Innovation?
To the sapeur, a thoughtfully coordinated outfit of Versace, Westons, and Kenzo is synchronously a collection of aesthetic choices, an intentional representation of his artistry, and ownership of his identity. Delighting in high fashion and emanating relaxed demeanors, the sapeurs emulate the more visible European dandies of the late eighteenth century. However, the sapeurs would argue that La Sape is not a mere imitation of European culture and dress. Rather, La Sape is a lifestyle that transcends social conditions and informs “the way [to] speak, the way [to] move…a way of presenting lives and being somebody in a society that doesn’t give [one] many opportunities…it’s about [being] confident in oneself despite the circumstances” (Evancie 2013:3).
While the ritual walks of sapeurs exhibit each individual’s uniquely created “swagger and stroll” evoke excitement and adoration from local onlookers, the sapeurs are acutely aware that they face disapproval and disdain from family, authorities, and the Western world (Wrong 1999:22). The sapeurs, who come from humble livelihoods of taxi drivers, carpenters, and gravediggers, know all too well that their material reality does not support their expenditures nor does it contribute to the improvement of their circumstances. Yet, the sapeurs assert that their “weapons are clothes,” a physical and symbolic gesture that they possess full ownership of their bodies and identities (Thomas 2003:953). A sapeur may explain his motive as a mechanism through which he can confront the subjection of Eurocentric values through non-traditional means of exchange: fashion. Sapeurs will assert that “whites may have introduced clothing to central Africa, but the naked savages have become cooler and more elegant than their hopelessly frump colonizers (Wrong 1999:27).
History of La Sape
The distinct historical and cultural environment of the 1970s contributed to the local popularity and prominence of contemporary sapeurs, but the early emergence of sapeurs and Sapologie parallels the colonial history of Congo. After the French colonization of what is now the Republic of Congo in 1891, many Congolese men were enlisted alongside French soldiers during World War I and resided instead in the colonizer state of France and among the French (Majumdar 2002:64). In the late 1920s, the Congolese soldiers returned from war to the capital of Brazzaville not only with an appreciation for “the French’s attitude against war and violence,” but also a conviction that Europeanesque dress was “the mark of an evolue .” Similarity in dress and attentiveness to Westernized ideals of style were also conceived as a unifying attribute of the alleged Francophone “brotherhood,” despite the distinct dissonance in economic stability, political autonomy, and civilian equality among French-speaking nations (Majumdar 2002, 105). The adherence of European fashion and infusion of ideological values occurred largely among working or middle class youth in Brazzaville (Kutesko 2013:63).
From the 1960s and onward, the decolonization of a formerly Belgian Congo cultivated a more politicized “third generation of Congolese dandyism” who are presently admired and emblematically significant to the Congolese people (Thomas 2003:953). After a devastating civil war and decolonization of the formerly Belgian colonized state, President Mobutu Seke Seso renamed the country Zaire and enforced an “Africanisation” policy under which he prohibited any form of Western dress and standardized a more “traditional” form of clothing (Majumdar 2002:75). During this cultural upheaval, the sapeurs, who generally resided in the capital of Kinshasa, were beaten up for wearing suits, and thus, their style was “mobilized as a means of resistance to the authoritative structure of the Congolese state” (Kutesko 2013:63). The sapeurs weaponized that which physically enwraps their bodies to defy various attempts of unwanted control restriction and empower themselves within their limited opportunities (Wrong 1999:28).
Still, the objectives of many past and modern-day sapeurs are threaded by a necessary pilgrimage to France, “a trans-continental adventure (partir l’aventure),” in order to acquire the proper designer clothing (Thomas 2003:962). His journey indicates his success in temporarily escaping an enduring reality of poverty and social immobility in his home country. The sapeur is both elevated by his uncommon experiences brought by travel and aesthetic style and at times, inconveniently compelled to maintain his appearance for his people. A sapeur from Kinshasa admits, “It’s so sad to dress nicely among people who are suffering in poverty, and still admire me, and want to be like me. Sometimes [he] feels [he doesn’t] want to dress like that anymore. But if [he doesn’t], they would laugh at [him], as someone who emigrated and failed,” (Giorgianni 2016:4). Other sapeurs who may feel comparable pressure by this element of performance relay their sentiments more subtly, vaguely referencing the “sacrifice” that make when fully immersing themselves in the ideology of sapologie (‘The Congo Dandies’ 2015).
After multiple incidents of political revolution engendered the current Democratic Republic of Congo, the perception of the sapeurs in Brazzaville and Kinshasa evolved into one that venerates sapeurs as local celebrities, and despite the alleged apolitical nature of Sapologie, many view the sapeurs as a nonviolent yet political statement directed “toward the West, the former colonizer, as well as toward the authoritative structures of the African state” (Gondola 1999:25).
Contemporary studies on sapeurs cannot neglect the influence of esteemed Congolese musician Papa Wemba in globalizing sapologie through his presentation of self and musical expression. Papa Wemba is one of the foundational ambassadors of Afropop, an extension of earlier pan-African popular music that emerged in “‘modern societies’ where the distinction between producers and consumers of music [was] clear.” The “God of Sape,” Wemba made intentional choices concerning his dress and often vocalized that “white people invented the clothes, but [Africans] make an art of it”(Tsioulcas 2016:2). Using his dress, voice, and lyrics, Wemba encouraged Africans to reject the Western gaze, to use elegance and image as a physical assertion of their humanity. Papa Wemba’s perspective challenged the Western lens that often framed La Sape and enabled the sapeur to determine who is the ‘Other,’ to develop norms of speech, dress, and gait, and ultimately reconfigure a social terrain where the sapeurs embody peace, happiness, and composure (Gondola 1999:23).
Semiotic resistance through style
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) theorized that subcultures often utilized style, the “activity of stylization—the active organization of objects with activities and outlook which produce an organized group-identity in the form and shape of a coherent and distinctive way of ‘being-in-the-world” (Williams 2007:578). Style emerges in four dimensions, dress, music, ritual, and argot, that create both physical and symbolic markers of a subculture. For the sapeur, dress is not merely the clothes one wears but an intentional embodiment of choices and self. Sapeurs have constructed a distinct set of code that explicitly guide the composition of outfits (color scheme, type of clothing articles, etc.) but implicitly inform how sapeurs are to physically move with grace and elegance, behave in a patient and leisurely manner that suggests a peaceful environment, and converse on topics related to aesthetic representations and apolitical subjects to imply they are without discontentment nor worry. Dress is seemingly absent of political or social control and its ubiquitous function in daily life presents an ideal medium in which sapeurs can claim full autonomy. Sapeurs embed value into the designer labels of their clothing, which are not only indicators of high fashion, but quality, history, and the legacy of designers and their artwork. Dress is the essence and driving element of sapologie through which sapeurs find authenticity.
Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma
Sapeurs face stigma for a variety of reasons that depend on the given lens of an outsider. Sapeurs have no desire to hurt or anger their family members who are immediately affected by the financial choice sapeurs make to invest in clothing that could provide assistance to relatives or used to purchase land. In this situation, sapeurs deflect to covering, choosing to not wear their fashionable clothing or demonstrate a stylized gait, thus also disengaging in the symbolic practices of La Sape and concealing their association to a specific community (Haenfler, Lecture Oct 2016). Because sapeurs desire to be seen and use their clothing as the primary method of self-expression, foreign media, art, and even academic discourse have periodically resorted to an exotified and neo-objectified presentation of La Sape. Thus, sapeurs fully embrace their identities in order to preserve control in defining for themselves and onlookers the function of La Sape as “an education, a code to manage family and friends’ relationships, and to improve [oneself]” (Giorgianni 2016:9).
The Congo Dandies (RT Documentaries, 2015)
- A documentary that follows the everyday lives of individual sapeurs in Brazzaville and how La Sape enriches not only their daily existence, but also defines their identities.
The Importance of Being Elegant (BBC Productions, 2004)
- An inside look into the life of the sapeurs’ most well-known and beloved exemplar, Congolese singer Papa Wemba.
Art and Fashion
Collective photography and film-based curatorial project—“Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity” (2016)
- A current exhibition of the works of photographers and filmmakers from throughout the African Diaspora that depict the resistance, forms of masculinity, and fashion among Black men worldwide.
Daniele Tamagni— “Gentlemen of the Bacongo” (2009)
- Selections from the European photographer’s book “Gentlemen of the Bacongo,” which influenced the S/S 2010 collection of fashion designer Paul Smith.
Guinness Beer “Sapeurs” short documentary film (2014)
- Guinness released both a commercial that featured the sapeurs as well as a related short documentary film with interviews.
Héctor Mediavilla—“The Congolese Sape” (2013)
- The director of the short Guinness documentary on Brazzavile’s sapeurs, Mediavilla produced this website to display his particular narrative about the sapeurs.
Junya Watanabe’s Fall 2015 Menswear Collection
- Images from designer Watanabe’s runway show during Paris Fashion week. His line integrated Japanese elements and sapeur influences.
In its coverage of a well-known sapeur death, Australia’s Lateline includes an interview segment with Wemba in which he explains the objectives of the La Sape ideology. The story emphasizes the movement towards wearing Congolese design rather than European brands.
- Gondola, Didier. 1999. “Dream and Drama: The Search for Elegance among Congolese Youth.” African Studies Review 42(1):23.
- Kutesko, Elizabeth. 2013. “Problems and Tensions in the Representation of the Sapeurs, as Demonstrated in the Work of Two Twenty-first Century Italian Photographers.” Immediations: The Courtauld Institute of Art Journal of Postgraduate Research 3(2).
- Wrong, Michela. 1999. “A Question of Style.” Transition (80).
- Jennings, Helen. 2011. New African Fashion. Munich: Prestel.
- Thomas, Dominic and Richard David. 2007. Black France: Colonialism, Immigration, and Transnationalism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Further historical context— dandies
- Fillin-Yeh, Susan. 2001. Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Further historical context—Francophone studies
- Majumdar, Margaret A. 2002. The Essential Glossary: Francophone Studies. London: Oxford University Press.
- Phyllis, Martin. 1995, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Subcultural studies and theory—style and semiotic resistance
- Williams, Patrick J. 2011. Subcultural Theory: Traditions and Concepts. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Created by Lauren Yi 2016