The Sapeurs: Dandies of the Congo


As someone who is familiar with the urge to change my outfit multiple times a day to fit my state of mind, I have been fascinated with the phenomenon of the Sapeurs of the Congo, the exceptionally well-dressed dandies from the French-speaking capital cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa. These dapper dressers elevate fashion and culture to a whole new level. The Sapeurs derive their name from the acronym SAPE: Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, which loosely translated means, the “Society for Persons of Elegance and Ambiance”.

Despite living in conditions of incredible poverty, rival fashion factions compete not through physical violence, but through flamboyant displays of one-upmanship and a strict code of conduct. But there is more to this story than meets the eye, although there is plenty to see.

A Tale of Two Cities

To understand what a truly unusual phenomenon the Sapeurs are, one needs a sense of the economic deprivation and difficult conditions which exist for most of the 12.5 million (combined) inhabitants of both the Democratic Republic of the Congo (African name: Kinshasha), and just across the Congo River, the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) which was briefly but memorably known as Zaire between 1971 through 1977. For at least the last two centuries, the entire area has been under the control of European colonial rule, namely Belgium and France, before the recent return to fractured African rule.

The World Bank in 2009 cited the poverty level in Kinshasha as 71%, with a life expectancy of 48 years. In Brazzaville, the U.S. State Department estimates that unemployment in the 16-34 year old population is at more than 42%. These two capital cities, rife with internal political upheaval and intermittent civil wars, then, are where the Sapeurs have sprung like unlikely birds of paradise.

A Historical Glimpse of the Birth of Sapeurism

The roots of the movement can be traced back to the early 1920’s when Andre Grenard Matsou, a Congolese revolutionary for human rights and freedom, and a national hero, lived for a time in Paris while working for the French army. Matsou returned from Paris dressed as an authentic Parisian, instead of traditional African robes. This caused an initial uproar, and was then the impetus for admiration and the birth of the SAPE movement.

Julius Soubise

Of course, there are also much earlier beginnings of a different type of “dandyism”, where African slave owners would extravagantly dress their slaves to blend in with their aristocratic surroundings. After slave trade was abolished, the newly freed men continued with their own sense of style.

Since this time, particularly in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the SAPE movement turned heads worldwide through Congolese rumba musician Papa Wemba, known as La Pape de la Sape (the Pope of Sape), who had an obsession with French fashion after multiple trips to Paris. In the 1970’s, while the Democratic Republic of Congo was ruled by the horrifyingly strict and violent Mobutu regime, any association with Western culture in what was formerly the Belgian Congo was forbidden. Papa Wemba was all for African authenticity, but drew the line at having to give up his newly adopted fashion. His defiance became a symbolic gesture in the midst of a dangerous political dictatorship. He actually formed a small village within Kinshasha where he dubbed this fashion as “Ungaru”, which was reminiscent of the elegant 1930’s era; tapered trousers, larger shoulders, and stylish caps worn at an angle.

Papa Wemba

The Code of Sapology

The Sapeur follow a very selective regime of dressing and social codes called Sapology. This includes their own conception of ‘high fashion’, preferring very luxurious, exclusive, and expensive brands. There are specific codes of dressing which must be adhered to: heights for socks, a pocket handkerchief stuffed, not folded, a suit sleeve’s cuff button left undone. In Brazzaville, a three-color combination limit for an outfit, including accessories. In Kinshasha, the look is more flamboyant, featuring a colorblind assortment of hues and patterns. But in both groups, designer names are at such a premium that rival sapeurs will do battle of a different sort with each other; flashing their labels, in an effort to one-up their opponent, stripping all the way down to their undergarments if the battle requires this.

Photo: Badouin Mouanda

Photo: Baudouin Mouanda

Photo: Daniele Tamagni

The sub-culture also has rules of behavior including a non-violence approach to resolving disputes. If this sounds reminiscent of a fashionista’s version of West Side Story, Hector Mediavilla Sabate’, a photographer who has been fascinated with the Sapeurs since the beginning of the decade says, “It’s combat, and the clothes are the weapons.” He noted that they are respected not just by the younger members in their group, but by the general public, and are seen as a positive force by many in their community.

Photo: Hector Mediavilla

Why do they do it?

At first glance, it seems unfathomable-ridiculous- for anyone to spend a year’s wages on a designer outfit when they are faced with such economic crisis. Best to first ask Congolese themselves. Young and talented photographer Badouin Mouanda, a member of the Congolese Photography Collective shared his insight in a fascinating interview with Marion Nur Gonde in Africultures:

“I realized that S.A.P.E. played a very important role in Brazzaville in 1998-1999, after the civil war. There wasn’t anything left to do in town; everything was shut down. The sapeurs recreated the atmosphere that is part of Congolese day-to-day life. For the traumatized population, the attraction of the sapeurs was to show that you had to have hope. Their message was, “We didn’t get dressed up to stay at home! We have been spared by the hostilities and we are lucky to be alive. There’s no point in fighting; we can talk and take each other by the hand”. The sapeurs often advocate this peaceful message. That’s why I, as a photographer, wanted to follow them. Images travel and spread messages. I want to show that a joyful Africa exists.”

French pharmacy attendant, “Olivier B.” son of Brazzaville parents, and blogger www.sape-bz.com/ was interviewed by Alice Hines in 2011 on the Brown University’s Global Connections Website and shared his perspective:

“La Sape is a pastime, it’s a hobby. It’s like a sport, or even a way of life. But in the Congo, la Sape is also one of the only leisures left. Today, in Brazzaville, there is no infrastructure. Development is very difficult. People live in misery while all the different oil, mine, and uranium interests control the country. It hurts our people. There’s a lot of opportunity in Africa, contrary to the vision that is described in the media. But right now, it is mostly the Chinese who are seizing them. Africa is a brand new continent”.

What, then, is fashion, if not a way to costume ourselves, to cloak ourselves in possibilities? For these generations of Congolese, in the absence of good possibilities of social and economic and political identity, a new identity has been created.

For more information, and stunning a stunning photo-essay, see Daniele Tomagni’s Gentlemen of the Bacongo on Amazon.com.

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. judit
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 21:18:13

    They are beautiful, and so are you.

    Reply

  2. Sable Basilisk
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 21:37:18

    Who would have known about this bizarre sub-culture if YOU had not dredged it from the dark bowels of anonymity?

    — Sable Basilisk

    Reply

  3. Darleen
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 17:21:42

    beautifully written, Sharon!

    Reply

  4. peggy lacy
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 17:33:50

    Tell me more…..

    Reply

  5. Beth
    Feb 11, 2012 @ 08:44:12

    Great story, Sharon! Thanks so much for sharing it.

    Reply

  6. Erin
    Feb 12, 2012 @ 06:00:11

    Who would have thought such a sub-culture would even exist?!?!

    Well written and vey informative!

    If *only* the ‘gangsta’ mentality and thuggish behavior seen in many of our nation’s youth and those living in the lower economic levels of our society could adopt a code of conduct that espouses a ‘non-violence’ way of solving disagreements the way this sub-cultures of dandies do…

    I sure like the way they roll!

    Reply

  7. shannonemmel
    Feb 20, 2012 @ 07:13:54

    The resilience of the human spirit is truly amazing.

    Thanks for the insight!

    -S

    Reply

  8. JLP
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 06:44:45

    Love these musings/fantastically painted descriptive informational pleasures ~

    Looking forward to the next installment !!

    Reply

  9. Bettylouisa
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 22:04:13

    I knew you are a journalist at heart! The Sapeurs are a great role model for us all.

    Reply

  10. stacer
    Feb 15, 2014 @ 23:56:49

    wow. super poor blacks in africa spending time and money on dumb fashion instead of books and education. hmmm…sound familiar? take a look at any inner city in america. they would rather wear the new jordans and talk about bling and cars rather than get an education. such a pathetic culture.

    Reply

  11. Trackback: Sartorial elegance at it’s finest | The Happy Black Girl, LLC

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