Bold, bright and brilliant; are just a few words to describe the stunning prints and fabrics used in creating Congolese fashion. Sporting only the most stylish designer labels, and wearing only meticulously matched colours, the Congo’s dandies are the very embodiment of sartorial elegance.
To the outsider, Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, doesn’t seem like the obvious hub for a trailblazing sartorial subculture.
When the challenge for some of the population is just to try and eat that day in the face of grinding poverty, matching your shoes with your tie isn’t exactly high on everyone’s agenda. And yet, quietly and persistently, a fascinating cultural movement has been bubbling like an undercurrent in this pocket of the world for over a century.
Known as “Sapeurs,” these dapper dressers are a Congolese subculture devoted to the cult of style. In Brazzaville and Kinshasa — the capitals of the neighbouring Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — they stand out among the widespread poverty, strutting down the streets like walking works of art.
Still, the Sapeur following has cultural significance beyond the facade of fabric. Born out of gradual economic improvements leading up to independence, both the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and its confusingly named neighbour, the Republic of the Congo, broke free of Belgium and France’s colonial grip respectively in 1960.
The capitals of Kinshasa and Brazzaville on opposing sides of the Congo River became centres for the new African francophone elite, flying to Paris and returning to show off sophisticated garments.
For the first time in the modern era, the Congolese were empowered after decades of brutality and economic subjugation enforced by foreigners. Papa Wemba, the famous singer credited with popularizing the Sapeur look with his group Viva La Musica, says inspiration partly came from his parents who took great pride in dressing up on Sundays back in the ’60s, “always well put together, and always looking very smart.”
CNN shares how things changed in the DRC shortly after independence, when Joseph Mobutu assumed power, renamed the country Zaire and implemented a strict non-Western dress code.
Papa Wemba wanted to challenge the status quo — not vocally, but visually. So he devised the acronym SAPE, roughly translated from French to mean “the Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People.” By dressing up his band in the SAPE style, the adoring Congolese crowds soon followed suit — literally. Since then, Sapeur’s swagger and the freedom of expression it represents have attracted legions of followers in central Africa and beyond.
By now they’ve earned an increasingly visible status in popular culture; Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni profiled them in his book “Gentlemen of Bacongo.” The Wall Street Journal anointed them “the most unlikely fashionistas.” They pop up in music videos and in the book “History of the Congo,” the Saps are included in great detail. They are an important part of the Congolese story.
What makes their sense of dress all the more remarkable – surreal even – is that it often takes place against a backdrop of poverty and deprivation, the Sapeurs resemble rare exotic birds in the most desperate of surroundings, from bombed buildings to shanty-town slums. But this isn’t about frivolity or conspicuous displays of wealth. There are strict behavioural customs that come with being a Sapeur which are as important, if not more so, than dressing with dash and flair.
“The Sapeur is a model of gentlemanly behaviour and mannerisms; it’s also the language he uses, the way he walks,” says Mediavilla. “How you treat people is very important. For a man to be a Sapeur he must be gentle, he must not be aggressive, he must be against war, he must be calm tempered.” In a country where many of the population live below the poverty line, a simple act of civility and kindness means a great deal. It is a beautiful sense of hope that restores faith in humanity and a viable sense of pride in knowing that your surroundings don’t determine who you choose to be.
The Congolese fashion, however, is not only limited to the Sapeaur’s silent revolutionary style. Traditionally, Congolese clothing is centred on the wearing of colourful materials referred to as ‘Liputa’ or ‘pagne.’ These types of fabrics are worn by both men and women and can more often than not be found at the local market. They are usually cut into strips from two to six yards in length, and to complete the look are typically worn with a complementing headscarf. Liputa, ‘pagne’, are sometimes also designed for different purposes, and aimed at certain audiences, for example, paying tribute to a leader, marking a special occasion or at a sporting event.
Culture is everything; it is a way of life and the most powerful strategy for the survival of any human society. In this era where global cultures are taking currency over the dying or decaying ones, it becomes imperative, not only to adapt to the macro cultures but also to try to understand and inquire about ways in which local cultures could be prevented from being suppressed or extinguished.
Shingai is an upcoming writer with a passion for words and expression through writing. She lived in Zimbabwe as a child and has traveled to over ten countries. She craves adventure and hopes to be an inspirational writer. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with a minor in Psychology at Daystar University.