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The Sapeurs are a group of most extraordinarily well turned out gentlemen from The Congo; Congo-Brazzaville (Bakongo) in The Republic and Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic, especially, typified by their fine duds and colourful suits. They are dedicated to the art of the Dandy- a man with undue devotion to style, neatness and fashion in dress and appearance. For the Sapeur, getting dressed is a way of life and an intricate part of their culture. Sapeurs are not cash rich but they have a wealth of spirit that comes from the buoyancy in their wardrobe; a tailored suit, bright colours, spiffy shoes, a fine hat etc. It is not unusual to see a Sapeur dressed in a three piece suit in red.
The “Grand Sapeur” Andre Matsoua, an intellectual who fought for Congolese independence and rights of the people, influenced the culture in the 1920s when he returned from Paris dressed like an elegant gentleman as opposed to the traditional attire of the Congolese.
La SAPE; Société des Ambicieurs et des Personnes Élegantes- Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People- was a movement influenced by Papa Wemba, the soukous (the rumba) musician, in the 70s as part of a protest that sought to defile Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s ban on western style of dressing, after independence from Belgium, and imposed a dress code that encourage more traditional clothing. Papa Wemba, a celebrated musician, created his own colony of Sapeurs that went against this rule in favour of the style set by their colonial masters. The Sapeurs would dress up in their finest and gather to outdo one another style-wise, this is street style like no other.
It is pertinent to note that one choice was no better than the other, really- Sese Seko and his brutal dictatorship that imposed and infringed upon the people’s basic right to choose to how they should dress or imbibing the practises of colonial masters who stripped them bare of almost all of their own identity. Still, the Sapeurs have adopted this style in a way that has made it become even more synonymous with them than its originators. The Sapeur tells his story through his clothes, no matter how disjointed that story is with reality.
The are codes of conduct the Sapeur must abide by-
- they must be fashionably savvy- eccentricity should not stand in the way of elegance
- socks is of a certain height
- no more than three colours can be worn in an outfit and it must be well matched
- impeccable attention to detail at all times
- impeccable grooming and cleanliness
- must not do drugs, must be non-violent and respectful to others
In a country rid with poverty, devastation, political unrest etc. it is odd that one should be so cavalierly extravagant- brands include Dolce & Gabbana, Cavalli, Gaultier etc- when some of these men still sleep on floors in their homes. Feeding and living day to day is a struggle, but for the Sapeur, who is not ignorant of their predicament when it is so immediate to them, dressing up is an escape from the tawdriness of their reality. It provides a way to keep that bountiful spirit alive because the clothes are as important as the man wearing it but the man only gets that sense of importance from the colourful three piece suits, the hat, the colourful sock and crocodile skin shoes.
I can understand that. Fashion is, after all, the ultimate form of escapism.
Below is the video from the Guinness ad.
Images- Baudouin Mouanda. Video- Guinness.