Life In La Sape: Congo’s High Fashion Sapeurs

Despite the unstable backdrop of the DRC and Congo-Brazzaville, two countries which still experience conflict and poverty. The streets of Kinshasa and Brazzaville are brightened by flamboyant suits and bold patterns. The streets of Congo are home to the Sapeur.

WHO ARE THE SAPEURS?

A Sapeur is a member of La Sape. This is an abbreviation based on the French phrase Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People). It also refers to the French slang word “sape”, which means “attire”.

La Sape is a subculture that embodies the elegance and style of European dandies from the colonial period. A dandy was a self-made man who valued physical appearance and refined language.

THE HISTORY OF THE SAPEUR

During the colonial period, house slaves in Kinshasa and Brazzaville would be given clothing instead of money for their work. As a way of fighting inequality, Congolese workers would use European style, but mix it with African fashion.

From generation to generation, Sapeurs have showcased suave suits, colourful bow ties, and scarves.

“Through their flamboyant performances and high fashion design, they’ve turned the art of dressing up into a cultural statement” said Hailey Gates. An American model and fashion journalist who worked with the Sapeurs at Kinshasa Fashion Week.

HOW TO DRESS LIKE A SAPEUR

Modern Sapeurs are respected within Congolese society. Usually, they are working class men and women who live ordinary lives, yet are obsessed with fashion. They spend their wages on the best eye-catching clothing.

Some invest in European designer clothing, while most find their garments from local second-hand shops known as “sola” in Lingala.

The key to their style is harmony of colour. A Sapeur should match primary colours (red, yellow and blue) with primary colours. The same principle applies to secondary colours (purple, orange, green) and tertiary colours (combinations of primary and secondary colours).

This portrays a consistency in elegance.

WHY ARE THE SAPEURS IMPORTANT IN CONGO TODAY?

Charles Didier Gondola, professor of African History and African Studies at Indiana University, argues that La Sape plays an important role in modern Congo.

Fashion is a way for young Congolese people to express themselves and make a statement during times of instability.

“Today, with both countries in turmoil, La Sape, with its exuberant flamboyance, may well serve as a lightning rod for the Congolese disenfranchised youth to map out their itinerary from Third World status to a modern cosmopolitanism.”

 

Picture from Actipedia

 

KATIE WILSON

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