Les sapeurs of Congo

Guest post by Enrica Picarelli

Last January, Guinness released an advertisement and a short film featuring a group of Congolese dandies called sapeurs. The campaign was shot in an unspecified South African location to document a day in the life of a community of unskilled/manual labourers who devote themselves to collecting and wearing old-school European menswear. This obsession makes for an iconic spectacle, where fashion and self-styling reconfigure identities across histories and continents.

Parading through the streets of Brazzaville, Kinshasa and Paris, the sapeurs are “all about defying your circumstances through inner conviction,” states the creator of Guinness’ features. And the campaign inspects just how these everymen make the best of modest means to be reborn as modern-day Brummels-es.

The sapeurs profess a narcissistic cult of style, where the tailored masculine body takes centre stage in an identitary play that builds upon gender and class issues. Also known as “Parisiens”, “cracks” and “playboys,” their use of fashion and sophisticated self-styling defines who they are and how people should perceive them. Although sapologie has many incarnations, the iconic sapeur never wears more than three colours at once, favours three-piece suits by renowned designers, bowler hats or fedoras, leather shoes and a cane, which he coordinates always to harmonious and lively effects.

Héctor Mediavilla(1)

The sapeurs of Brazzaville

The sapeurs of Brazzaville, photographed by Héctor Mediavilla

These items are worn elegantly in the course of elaborate performances, organised at designated social spots. A number of accessories enhance the attire, including eyewear, pocket squares and watches. But the most daring outfits can go as far as including alligator shoes, or a kilt and tam-o-shanter, as seen in Guinness’ videos.

Per Petterson(1)

Per Petterson

The darker/post-punk style of Kinshasa sapeurs, photographed by Per Petterson.

Creativity and an eye to composition are indeed the main requirement of would-be sapeurs. The right arrangement of textures, materials and chromatic tones beautifies the masculine body, infusing the cult of style with gendered meaning. At the same time, the possession of clothes by famous brands creates a material display of acquired social capital that sets the sapeur apart from his peers.

Scholars of sapologie, like Didier Gondola, point out that the use of fashion items as means of social distinction dates back to the colonial “politics of costume” of the mid-19th century, when the trade of European military uniforms and hats in the Congo region was instrumental to the colonizing mission. The French handed second-hand clothes to local chiefs to win their favours and the latter, in turn, wore them to exercise power on their subjects. In the first half of the 20th century, this practice extended to the civil society and the SAPE informal association was established in Brazzaville. This Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, whose acronym refers to the French verb saper (“to dress with style”), involved urbanised colonials that worked as houseboys in French and Belgian mansions, where they developed an appetite for European fashion. The exotic clothes of the masters marked the sapeurs’ status of “évolués”: individuals who “could not become whites and no longer looked like other blacks,” Gondola reports. These men never simply reproduced the European style, but experimented, and at time subverted, the designated use of the clothes in a creative gesture that defined aesthetic and cultural standards.

To this day, sapeurs continue to use fashion to boost their social condition, all the more so in the context of transnational migration fed by the growing disenfranchisement of former colonial subjects. Sapologie has become one of Europe’s many urban subcultures. In this contexts, ownership of expensive or unique items puts a distance between the dappers and other, supposedly ‘uncouth,’ African migrants. Testimony of the sapeurs’ maniac obsession with fashion is found in Alain Mabanckou’s novels, where it becomes a cypher of alienation. Here, designer clothes are the tangible traces of a compulsory self-transformation, but also of a delusion. Miserable migrants living on the outskirts of Paris wish to appropriate them and sacrifice anything to turn themselves into men of the world – a desire that is imbued with political implications, even if they are not always acknowledged by the sapeurs themselves. Arguably, as Dominc Thomas observes, the “adoption of alternative aesthetic codes presents itself as a symbolic gesture aimed at reclaiming power.” But awaiting the well-dressed gentleman in the métropole is not a happy ending. Rather, the change is so radical that he becomes “a man without identity,” and the clothes a mortifying reminder of alienation.

Héctor Mediavilla

Today’s spectacular rise of the sapeur in Western media does not address this richer and more tragic history. On the contrary, while giving visibility to this community, the Western discourse on sapologie overwrites a cruder, less glamorous reality. These men may make for excellent performative characters, suited to appear on the front page of lifestyle magazines and in dazzling advertisements, but beyond sartorial mastery and savoir faire trite processes of disenfranchisement and social paralysis stop the sapeurs at the gates of the metropolitan universe they wish to enter. For even though Guinness endorses a message of self-affirmation that in life “you can always choose who you are,” the campaign fails to address the ambiguities of self-styling a living while moving between two worlds, never fully belonging to any of them.

The dandified body of the fictional and real-life sapeur is, then, not just a lay figure for the display of beautiful clothes, or a universal symbol of perseverance to be appropriated by anybody. Rather, it is a living archive that makes present the contradictions of neo-colonialism. Furthermore, it betrays the West’s biased interest in “Africanness” that smacks of appropriation. In fact, the unprecedented currency the sapeurs have been enjoying since the release of Guinness’ campaign seems to confirm the growth of the “demand for more authentic, virgin, black culture to consume” noted by Emma Dabiri. In this sense, the fashion discourse seems to contribute to the othering of the sapeurs, silencing the ambiguities inherent in this lifestyle behind a hollow, or at best paternalistic, stereotyping.

Watch a short documentary about the sapeurs here.

Dabiri, Emma, “Why I’m not an Afropolitan”. Africa as Country. 21 January 2014. http://africasacountry.com/why-im-not-an-afropolitan/
“The Sapeurs: A New GUINNESS Campaign for 2014”, Guinness.com, http://www.guinness.com/en-gb/sapeurs/
Gondola, Didier, “La Sape Exposed! High fashion among Lower-Class Congolese Youth” in Suzanne Gott and Kristyne Loughran (eds.), Contemporary African Fashion. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Mabanckou, Alain, Blue, White, Red: A Novel. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Thomas, Dominic, Black France: Colonialism, Immigration and Transnationalism. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Enrica Picarelli has a Ph.D in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies of the Anglophone World from the University of Naples, “L’Orientale”. Her research interests bring together cultural theory, media theory, postcolonial studies and gender studies, touching upon questions of representation and affect transmission.

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