Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
Subject: sapeur
Culture: urban Congolese
Setting: Kinshasa/Brazzaville from mid-20thc

Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)

* Young 2016 p233
​"Amongst the war-ruined buildings and shanty town slums of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, and Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the sapeurs, or 'la sape', stand out as peacocks, defying their circumstances, with a gentlemanly code to their style of dress and behaviour.  La sape is an acronym for the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes, translated as the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People, and with their French flare [SIC] and style, they were also given the nickname 'les Parisiens'.

* Fogg ed. 2013 p553
"Members of Le Sape (Socié des Ambienceurs et des Personnes égantes; Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People) adhere to a lifestyle in which good manners, idiosyncratic gestures, and immaculate fashion sense mark them out as sartorial heroes.  They are role models and, although poor, and still regarded as the elite, whose stylish presence at important functions is seen to add convivial glamour."

* Tamagni 2015 p196-198 (Gerardo Mosquera, "Gentlemen of transgression" p196-199)
"This society, which professes an almost religious devotion to fashion (and has its own rules of ethical behavior), has spread from there to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, and even on to the Congolese immigrant communities in Paris and Brussels.  Originally founded as an all-male society, the SAPE has now expanded to include women as well.  The French idiom sapeur means 'big spender,' but its sense has evolved with the growing presence of the sapeurs and now refers to anyone who dresses with elegance -- and it is used as a play on the acronym SAPE.
    "The sapeurs, dressed in clothes that confront accepted standards and that are sometimes tailored by leading international brands, rise in stark contrast to their social environment.  The way they choose and combine their outfits looks picaresque, but it acts as a creative expression of local tastes, attitudes, and aesthetics that favors the use of bold colors cheerfully combined.  Their style involves the theatrical posturing that befits the dandy and the studied poses of the fashion model."

* Young 2016 p234
"It's said that a sapeur should be gentle and against war and fighting, and must show kindness and civility.  Their way of dress also changes their manner and stance, and they perform with a different gait, propping themselves in motion with their cane, elbows and knees at angles.  As noted by writer and professor Peter H. Wood, historic dance in the culture around the Congo involved bent knees and elbows, following a West African belief that 'straightened knees, hips and elbows epitomised death and rigidity, while flexed joints embodied energy and life.'"

* Tamagni 2015 p199 (Gerardo Mosquera, "Gentlemen of transgression" p196-199)
​"Western culture was imposed by colonialism in Africa and elsewhere as the operative global metaculture of the contemporary world.  However, its objectives of conversion and domination also implied a more generalized access to international information.  If Western culture's imposition sought to convert the Other, its availability facilitated the use of this very same metaculture from within ....  The sapeurs do not wear traditional costumes, as many other people in West Africa do; they dress in international fashion in a transgressive manner that constitutes a contemporary activation of subaltern 'traditions' (mores, tastes, aesthetics, values) that de-Eurocentralizes Western canons.
    "This process of globalization-differentiation is a conflictive articulation of forces that implies intricacies, ambiguities, and contradictions on all sides.  It cannot be taken passively as an inevitable inclination that occurs without pressure exercised by subaltern sectors, as sapeurs spontaneously do.  The dynamics of culture are woven amidst shocks and dialogues resulting in phenomena of mixture, multiplicity, appropriation, and resemanticization.  There is no viable return to precolonial traditions, since that would consist of going back to the myth of an uncontaminated past, with little margin of action in the postcolonial world.  The goal would be to create contemporary culture from a plurality of experiences and agendas, as the sapeurs have done so flamboyantly.  The current postcolonial structure makes this difficult, due to the distribution of power and to the limited possibilities of action possessed by vast sectors of the global population."

* Breward 2016 p110-111
"[T]he reappropriation of the tailored suit by the Socié des Ambianceurs et des Personnes égantes and its followers the Sapeurs in the Republic of the Congo offers a colorful coda to the story of the suit's place in a history of empires.  The dandified young men of Brazzaville and Kinshasa substituted the repressive French and Belgian imperialism, so horrifyingly represented in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1899), with an ecstatic celebration of equality through the symbolism of dress.  Inspired by the revolutionary ideas of André Matsoua in the 1930s and fuelled by the cosmopolitanism of African music and dance that thrived in the 1950s and '60s, returning émigres from Paris fuelled a revival of La Sape's ideology in the 1980s and '90s.  Now a familiar feature of popular culture throughout the world (appearing in pop videos, documentaries, fashion shoots and advertising campaigns), the vivid hues, extravagant accessorizing, extreme cut and bold gestures of the Sapeur's self-presentation are a proud rebuke to former exploitation and a confident assertion of aspirational style as ownership of the means to freedom."


* Young 2016 p233-234
​"Despite the poverty, the sapeurs dress in expensive designer suits of periwinkle blue, candy pink and lemon yellow, with polished crocodile skin loafers and bowler hats.
    "It's an all-encompassing way of life, and sapeur rules of dress include only wearing three colours, along with white, at the same time.  Pocket squares are on display, an umbrella or cane is carried, and there's an extensive grooming routine in a country with limited water supplies.  Followers call it 'sapologie', and it's been passed down through generations, beginning with the houseboys who mimicked the French colonials during the 1920s, but wore the clothes as flamboyantly as possible.  Professor Didier Gondola, an authority on culture and history in West Africa, recounted a sapeur telling him of 'our fathers and our grandfathers who were servants in white mens' homes and were often paid with clothing.  My father was an elegant man ... the kind of person to put a breast pocket on his pyjamas.'  It was reminiscent of the African-American slaves who created their own styles from the clothes given to them by the slave owners in America, and 'were only too keen to display, even to flaunt, their finery both to other slaves and to whites,' as described in the book Stylin': African American Expressive Culture."

​* Fogg ed. 2013 p553
"Silk ties, pocket squares, and Oxford shoes complete a classic sapeur look; such items lose their colonial overtones once donned by a sapeur."

​* Tamagni 2015 p198 (Gerardo Mosquera, "Gentlemen of transgression" p196-199)
"The sapeurs' proclaimed elegance and their often expensive clothing do not strictly function as status symbols, however, because their fashion does not always correspond to their economic situation, despite the great efforts taken to spruce up in such a peculiar way.  Elegant dress is more of a fictional status symbol, one that is represented and theatrically performed.  The sapeurs' playful aesthetic does not relate, for example, to the kitschy, grandiose display of obscene wealth by drug traffickers in Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe, which also constitutes a menacing expression of power.  It is more akin to the inclination toward luxury and conspicuous spending in disproportionately poor contexts in places such as Central and West Africa, where brand-new Mercedes cars are parked in the mud in front of shacks, in a sort of competition -- 'mine is larger than yours.'"