In Brazzaville, the capital city of the Republic of Congo, a group of men—gentlemen—always gallantly brighten up the moods of those around them. Meet la Société des Ambienceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (the Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance), abbreviated as La Sape—an apt abbreviation that also happens to mean clothes, or dress, in French. The members of this association are referred to as les sapeurs.
La Sape originated from Dandyism of the 19th century that was brought to Congo by colonialism. Colonial officers wanted their servants—or as they were called during that era “houseboys”—to dress in such a manner that would reflect the status of their masters. Congolese men coming back to their country from France also brought French fashion with them. Thus, among the youth and those who worked for the colonizers, many wanted to emulate and live up to the myth of the Parisian elegance.
However, nowadays, this foreign-influenced fashion has been appropriated and utilized as a uniquely Congolese sartorial expression to defy the harsh reality of everyday poverty and to allow those who partake in this subculture to articulate their art of living and their joie de vivre. In a country where 46.5 percent live at or below the national poverty line, an average person earns $3,240 per year. Nevertheless, today’s sapeurs are willing to pay a fortune for a pair of crocodile shoes, which can cost anywhere between $1,300 and $3,900. That is not to say that the sapeurs are on average wealthier than most Congolese or that they indulge in conspicuous consumerism.
Most members of La Sape have medium-income occupations such as electricians, shopkeepers or marketing agents. Despite their meager incomes, the sapeurs manage to use their creativity to assemble fashionable dresses to turn the streets of Brazzaville into runways. To save money, the sapeurs often buy second hand clothes or obtain them from friends. Besides their à la mode (and perhaps even a little avant-garde) clothing, the sapeurs also uphold—to a near commandment status—certain types of demeanors and manner that are the quintessence of politeness and elegance. Some of these commandments include: “1. To dress oneself here on earth as it is in heaven,” “8 & 9. To not be tribalist, racist, nationalist, or violent” and “ 10. To not display any hesitation in trying to charm all those who are sappophobic.” In Brazzaville, the sapeurs are somewhat celebrities—not unlike reality TV starts. Their presence at weddings, celebrations, parties and even funerals, are appreciated as they so often bring a sense of lightheartedness and stylishness to the occasions.
Although outsiders may see La Sape movement as a direct legacy of colonialism and the European imposition of Western values, the sapeurs in fact defy the stereotypes that are, too, imposed upon the many peoples of Africa by outsiders. In contrast to the usually clichés of a monolithic Africa of famine, wars, and safaris, the sapeurs show that there are more dimensions beyond the clichés. No matter how difficult the circumstance may be for the sapeurs, they nevertheless know how to make the best out of what they possess and in doing so, bring joy to both themselves and those around them. And as for the accusation that the sapeurs are perpetuating the legacy of colonialism, Baudouin Mouanda—a photographer who immortalized the numerous members of La Sape—has once stated, “the Westerners made the dress, but how it is worn was invented in Brazzaville.”
– Peewara Sapsuwan