- Andrew Kingsford-Smith
The Republic of Congo and its neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo are not often associated with the latest international fashion trends. In recent years however the bold styles of the residents of Brazzaville and Kinshasa have shown that fashion isn’t all about reputation. Standing out among shantytowns that have in recent history been scarred by civil wars and poverty, Sapeurism is a subculture that is promoting a new image for the two African nations.
The word Sapeur derives from the French acronym ‘SAPE’, short for ‘Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes,’ and the term refers to Congolese men who take pride in dressing in stylish, elegant and colorful clothing. The usual pieces of attire include suave suits, silk ties, bowler hats and sometimes even monocles, conjuring aesthetical links to the France‘s trendy salons of the 1920s. However unlike many fashion trends where only the rich can afford to keep up to date, Sapeurism is associated with hard working middle class men who are happy to save up their well-earned Francs to afford these expensive outfits.
The subculture is heavily influenced by 18th and 19th century Dandyism, which saw many British and French middle class men place particular focus on their dress, posture and language in an attempt to appear of a higher class. This may seem somewhat shallow in retrospect, but at the time it was seen by many as a sign of taking control of one’s own destiny, and it is this meaning that seems to resonate in Congo. Mass media often depicts many African cities uniformly as run down urban slums where war, poverty and disease prohibit the improvement of living standards. These negative portrayals are harmful to a country’s cultural identity, and can have detrimental effects on both local and international communities, hindering a nation’s development. Sapeurism looks past these damaging stereotypes and focuses on creativity and the individual. The sight of these luminously colored outfits also helps give hope to many locals, as Tom Downey of The Wall Street Journal was told by one Sapeur, “The Sapeurs can only exist in peacetime. … To me they’re a sign of better things: stability, tranquillity. They indicate that our nation is returning to normal life after years of civil war.”
While some may not be 100 percent convinced by the humanitarian reasons behind the style, no one can deny the artistry behind Sapeurism. In both Brazzaville and Kinshasa these impeccably dressed men walk as if they were works of art. Congo Dandyism centers on style, colour composition and attitude, and these factors are just as important as brand. The movement is also intertwined with rigid regulations. A complex tale, the whole subculture revolves around specific rules on exclusivity, codes of honours and morality. Award-winning Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni provides unique insight into this subculture in his photography book Gentlemen of Bacongo (2009).