By Katie Gatens
In the Republic of the Congo, the impoverished shantytown capital of Brazzaville is home to groups of immaculately dressed men who gather on the streets wearing vibrant suits, sporting polished canes and nonchalantly smoking cigars ““ they are known as sapeurs, or members of the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People).
Their colorful, dandy attire shockingly jars with the arid African landscape, but the people that wear them (primarily men) are ordinary inhabitants of Brazzaville who idolize high fashion and dream of a better life.
This bizarre practice is the way of life for sapeurs and is part of what they call “˜sapology”˜ which can’t be pinned down as a religion, a school of thought or a political movement. The practice of sapology is a form of escapism, which many sapeurs say enables them to forget the crippling poverty and economic problems in their everyday lives. The suits and cigars are symbols of luxury and wealth representing the determination and ambition for an idealized European lifestyle; the costume brightens up Brazzaville and neighboring towns, offering a glimmer of hope and prosperity for many of its people.
In the eighteenth century, European masters often expected their African servants to “˜fit in’, so they would give the help old suits and second-hand clothes to wear. The Congolese adapted this European style to create an African-influenced colorful hybrid, utilizing an important part of French culture, wearing it better and beating the Europeans at their own game.
During the 1960s and 70s, sapeurs would meet in costume secretively as an expression of freedom from the harsh regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko, who sought to rid the Congo of all colonial influence, including sapeurs.
Supporters of the regime brutally beat anyone who wore a suit openly in the streets. The sapeurs’ attire was considered an act of ideological rebellion, which defied Sese Seko’s ban on Western-style suits. The President wanted the people of the Congo to dress in traditional tunics, known as an “˜abacost’ to show their support for his authenticité program.
Today, most sapeurs work ordinary jobs and have to save up (and often shoplift) to fuel their expensive addiction to fashion. The ultimate dream of a sapeur is to obtain a visa and move to Paris, the centre of the fashion world. This dream is a reality for very few who return from the capital each year laden with the latest fashions to parade around the streets of Brazzaville for all the neighbours to envy.
Simplicity is key, and learning how to dress in a chic and understated way, with often no more than three colours, is the secret to the outfit’s success. But it’s not all for show; the sapeur is also expected to have impeccable gentlemanly mannerisms. To be a sapeur means to comprehend all codes of conduct expected of a gentleman. He also has to learn how to stand and walk correctly, as well as learn how to converse fluently in French.
According to Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni, who stumbled across sapeurs in 2007 and returned the following year to write a book on this unique culture, there are other subcultures that dress in traditional Scottish kilts and sporrans, or in Eton shirts.
Whatever the message, political or not, the Sapeurs inject colour and passion into the Congo, and are a fascinating and perhaps uplifting, subculture of post-colonial African life.
About the Writer
Katie has just graduated from the University of Leeds where she studied English and Spanish. She’s been writing for lamono, a multilingual arts and culture magazine for over a year, and lived in Barcelona last summer working for them and has also written for British Airways’ High Life magazine. Katie is interested in the history of countries, and could never visit a place without visiting the cathedrals, ruins or museums there. She’s been inter-railing around Europe for three years and got through a ton of books on the way. Her twitter is @katie_gatens