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The curious case of Congo ‘Sapeur’

By- Chalamba Kshetri -

“ I could buy a piece of land, but bought a pair of shoes”    - Congo Dandies
What is Sapeur ?
The word Sapeur derives from the French acronym ‘SAPE’ short for ‘ Societe’ des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegeantes, and this translates to “ The Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People” and the term refers to Congolese men who take pride in dressing in stylish, elegant and colourful clothing.
Origin of the Sapeur -
At the coming of the 20th century, French colonial workers or coastmen arrived in Congo. The Native Congolese men who either worked for the Colonizer or spent time in France were deeply influenced by the Parisian elegance. Few Colonists thought it wise to pay their workers in Secondhand clothes instead of money. Soon, the Congolese workers now spend their meager wages lavishly to acquire the latest fashion from Paris.
In the 1960’s when both Congo ‘ Republic of the Congo ‘ and ‘ Democratic Republic of the Congo’ were granted Independent by their Colonizers. This cultural influence continued and soon became a part of Congolese cultural phenomenon.
Who are the  ‘Sapeur’
The first impression of Sapeur might appear to be lavishly dressed, high-powered businessman. But in reality, they are ordinary men working as taxi drivers, shoemaker, carpenters, electrician, gravediggers.
Analysis on ‘Sapeur’ fashion style
The Sapeur or Dandies ( informally ) style is defined by impeccably tailored suits, bowler hats, canes, silk ties, pipes, bright pocket squares, scarves, flashy and bright shining socks. Striking pattern and matching colour co-ordination. Their accessories also includes a silver tie clip, a watch almost as large as his face and sunglasses of strange pattern. These Congolese fashion pioneers took the European aesthetic and made the style all their own. From French crocodile shoes and British sport coats, to handmade Italian ties, the Sapeur wore high end designer brands like Versace, Christian Dior, G- Star, Yohji Yamamoto, Gianfranco Ferre. But the thing is, ‘brand’ is not everything. It’s all about creativity, uniqueness, matching, attitude which define their attention to the masses. There are also clear rules and expectation about what to wear and how to wear it. Sapeur wear no more than three colours at one time, excluding white. The Sapeur culture stands in contrast to the immense poverty of the area.
‘ Hub’ of Sapeur culture -
Sapeur culture is centered  around Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the adjacent capitals of the ‘Republic of the Congo’ and ‘ Democratic Republic of the Congo’ respectively. These Capital cities are separated only by the Congo river, but the differences between each city’s Sapeur community make them feel World’s apart.
Fashion amidst Caos ?
The Congo conflict and Civil War has killed, 5.4 million people and made hundreds and thousands of Brazzaville and Kinshasa residents into refugees. According to the U.N. Human Development Report for 2007, people in ‘ Republic of the Congo’ have a life expectancy of just 53 years, and a per capita GDP of $ 2, 030 making it the 136th least developed country on Earth. But in the case of ‘ Democratic Republic of the Congo’ fares even worse. It’s life expectancy is 47 years and per capita GDP is $143. It is the 176th least developed country in the World.
Sapeur Philosophy and their Justification -
Media often describe many African cities uniformly as run down Urban slums where War, Poverty, Crime and Disease hit the improvement of living standards. These negative depiction considered hindrance to the Country’s image by the Sapeur. The Congo Dandies look beyond these stereotypes and focusses on creativity and the individual. The rising Sapeurism is considered a good sign by the Sapeur as they say, “ Sapeur can only exist in peacetime’. To them it is a sign of better things after years of Civil War. It also means to indicate Peace and Stability.
With extreme poverty and undeniable political crisis in the Country, participation in the ‘Sapeur Community’ is for many a means of building self confidence despite many strife and political turmoil.
The practice is a form of escapism, which many Sapeur says enable them to forget the crippling poverty and economic problems in their everyday lives. In the face of Colonialism, Corruption, Poverty, and even Civil War, Generation of Sapeur have found something refreshing and carefree in which they can take immense pride with. To them dressing means a sense of pride and identity. Sapeur participate in public cultural events and festivals and command immense respect and admiration from their home communities. No one can deny the artistry behind ‘Sapeurism’. They considered these attitude and pattern as work of art.
To these men, the competition and investing in their image is more important than improving their living conditions. My question to these confusing theory is that, Is it self - defeating to invest to such a degree in clothing? What about their families needs? Is it a right justification amidst the Country poverty.

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