The inspiration for this post came from several factors. Over a year ago I had written a post about African Fashion Subcultures that I found incredibly interesting because of the juxtaposition between living in some of the least developed countries in the world and the need to exuberantly show off one's wealth through elegant clothing. The topic of Sapeurs came back to me when exploring different subcultures found in Amsterdam in preparation for releasing our miniseries The Barber Stories, and by learning more about how modern barbering has grown out of people’s fascination for and want to bring back past traditions. Also, a barber we filmed adopted the dandy style, which Sapeurs are known for. He’s recently opened a barber shop in Haarlem called Amsterdam Dandy. Finally, a great haircut and conversation with a Congolese man got me thinking more about the amazing story about a group of people the make up the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes or The Society of Ambiance Makers and Elegant People – La SAPE.
Sapeurs, as the followers of La SAPE are known, are a group of men who seek to embody the elegance and mannerisms of the dandies seen during French colonialism. Dandies placed importance on appearance as well as refined language and hobbies, in an attempt to imitate an aristocratic lifestyle despite their middle-class backgrounds. Sapeurs are therefore modern dandies whose origins can be traced back to French colonialism in Africa, centered around the twin cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa.
The roots of the Sapeur movement was founded at the end of the 19th century as second-hand clothing from Europe were used as bargaining tools and compensation as the French made it their mission to civilize the “uncouth” Africans. This lead the Congolese servants or “houseboys” imitating their master’s styles as a way to set themselves apart from their countrymen. In typical French style of creating something and then despising the result, the colonists looked down on how the Congolese servants would, despite barely managing to feed themselves, spend their wages on the most expensive clothes they could buy.
I think what is most interesting about La SAPE is that despite living in some of the least developed countries in the world, Sapeurs invest thousands of dollars into expensive designer clothing. It seems like such a foreign concept, but in a country where most have nothing, La SAPE is a way for people to signify a refined attitude and set themselves apart. Also, Sapeurs are pacifists and find that there is no room for violence and La SAPE.
“When there’s peace there’s SAPE.”
Check out the RT documentary titled “The Congo Dandies” and a short documentary from Guinness about Sapeurs.