La Sape

sape

La Sape, an abbreviation based on the phrase ‘Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes’ (‘The Society for the Advancement of Elegant People’) is a social movement centered in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. It embodies the elegance in style and manners of colonial predecessor dandies as a means of resistance.

A dandy is a man unduly concerned with his appearance in fashion and manners. The word ‘sape’ means ‘dress’ and it corresponds to the intransitive verb ‘se saper’ which mean ‘to dress fashionably.’ This term made its first appearance in French vocabulary in 1926 and referred to the Parisian socialites and the ‘fashion energy’ they displayed during the Roaring Twenties.

La sape can be traced back to the early years of colonialism. The French mission was to civilize the ‘uncouth’ and ‘naked’ African people. They brought second hand clothing from Europe as a bargaining tool to gain the loyalty of the chiefs. Brazzaville soon became the ‘most favored residential area for whites and the seat of colonial government.’ By the end of the 19th century their ‘houseboys’ were the first to embrace European modernity because they would be given clothing instead of money as compensation for their work. The Congolese elite not only included the houseboys, but also those who held lower positions as clerks in colonial offices and other places.

One major influence, formed during the Roaring Twenties, on the Congolese elite was the West African colonial workers who came to the Congo. These Bapopo or Coastmen served as inspiration for the Congolese ‘to combat ingrained charges of inferiority leveled at them’ by French and Belgian colonialism. Young Congolese men took the style of their masters’ and made it their own. In historian Didier Gondola’s essay ‘La Sape Exposed!: High Fashion among Lower-Class Congolese,’ he says: ‘Captivated by the snobbery and refined elegance of the Coastmen’s attire, Congolese houseboys spurned their masters’ secondhand clothes and became unremitting consumers and fervent connoisseurs, spending their meager wages extravagantly to acquire the latest fashions from Paris.’

Colonists looked down on the habits houseboys in Brazzaville because they may have been half-starved, but would be donned in their expensive clothing once their monthly wages came in.

‘L’Amicale’ was a loosely organized anti-colonial movement formed in France in 1926 by the imaginative Congolese revolutionary André Matsoua, which mainly helped Africans new to Paris get settled in the city because they were not really welcomed by French (facing imprisonment and deportation). By the time of Matsoua death in 1942, his political developments gained prominence in the Congo and were ‘hijacked’ by Congolese intelegencia. They not only adapted the fashion sense but also his anti-colonial views. This movement became a distinctly ethnic Bakongo and Balari one, characterized by potent political symbolism and ideology that would manifest in postcolonial era.

The 1950s gave rise to the creation of the cosmopolitan (the ‘man of the world’), thus bringing prominence to the music scene. Nightclubs and beer halls made up the venues home to the music and young urbanites of the Congolese townships Kinshasha and Brazzaville. La Sape was synonymous with the Congolese rumba scene that surfaced. Papa Wemba was a Congolese musician who made music about the style of La Sape. In 1960 both Congos were granted independence. Economic chaos followed, and many were left jobless. This caused numerous Congolese people to move abroad to western cities like London and Paris. Since they were also not very welcome, La Sape acted as refuge for them to cope with European life.

Although war and strife had riddled the Congo over the years, there has been a revival of La Sape in Brazzaville. Whereas before in the early 1980s when campaigns were being prompted to bar La Sape from public spaces, they are now well respected and are the ‘darlings of the regime.’ They have been raised to a higher status of ‘cultural heritage’ by former President Sassoe Nguesso by allowing them to participate in public cultural events like the ‘African Exhibit of Fashion and Crafts.’ Gondola argues that, ‘Today, with both countries in turmoil, la sape, with its exuberant flamboyance may well serve as a lighting rod for the Congolese disenfranchised youth to map out their itinerary from Third World status to a modern cosmopolitanism and to cope with their social dereliction.’

In an interview with American journalist David M. Ewalt, media theorist Henry Jenkins described the traditional cosmopolitan as someone who escapes the orbit of their own parochial culture through high culture and absorption of the values attached to that culture. This includes luxuries such as opera, ballet, paintings, etc. However, the pop cosmopolitan is the modern teenager. He used America to illustrate this point through teenagers today who learn, absorb, and interact with various facets of Asian cultures as a means of escaping the limitations of American culture. They use the Internet and technology to connect with other cultures.

Music artist Solange drew inspiration from La SAPE for her music video ‘Losing You’ in 2012. It was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, and Solange worked with director Melina Matsoukas to showcase the ‘beauty and fascination of the Congo’s Le Sapeurs.’ Luke Warm, the author of the article on ‘Losing You’ argues for two varying readings of the video: African culture being exoticized through the liberated Le Sape, or pop cosmopolitanism. Warm says that Solange escapes the narrow scope of American culture through an attempt at returning to her ‘roots,’ a culture and history unfamiliar to her, and goes further to describe Le Sape as another example of Pop Cosmopolitanism because the members take on ‘English Gentleman chic’ transcending that of their French origins.

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