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Tuesday , December 14, 2010
Random Picture Entry: Meet the Sapeurs, The Congo's Most Dapper Gentlemen Ever
Sometimes you see an image that is so indisputably elegant and riveting that you just HAVE to find out everything about it. For me recently, it was when I stumbled upon some portraits, shot by Francesco Giusti, of these incredibly-dressed dandies from Congo-Brazzaville in the World Press Photo show I went to last week. (I can't reproduce the images here, but you can peek a gander at them at the World Press Photo winners gallery. These images are culled from various sources on the Internet.)
How could you NOT look at such incredible style? The tiny little description told me these dudes were sapeurs, members of a certain style cult of high-fashion dressing in the Congo called La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. (Aside: how amazing would it be to put down "ambianceuse" on my passport as my occupation one day!) SAPE, as it's known by, emerged in the 1960s when Congolese would visit Paris and come back to Africa with the latest styles. According to the description, hardcore sapeurs apparently would save up money (for years, in some cases) in order to buy high fashion from the likes of Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Versace and the like. These stylin' dudes often became local celebrities because of their flair for fashion, and would even make appearances at weddings and funerals to lend an air of elegance and glamour to the proceedings. That's all that the caption stated, but judging from the richness of the images (and knowing this was Africa, one of the most geopolitically complex continents EVER--to completely understate it), I knew there was more to the story.
There's some good info floating around on the Internet on sapeurs. Apparently there are "battling" factions of sapeurs--the ones from Brazzaville have different rules and motifs than the ones from Kinshasa or Bacongo, for example. Even though by nature a sapeur is non-violent (remarkable in an area known for its many often brutal civil wars), there are "fight days" when sapeurs gather and dress up and show off. (I bet the word "fierce" takes on a new dimension during these events.) The origins of SAPE are actually in dispute--it may have part been inspired by a rebellion against ideas prescribed by Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator who was no picnic in the park, to say the least, and a big Congolese musician named Papa Wemba plays a significant role in popularizing SAPE as well.
Images like these, of course, work in many different ways. On a basic level, what's so riveting about these pictures is the contrast between the opulence and luxury of the sapeurs' clothing with the undeniable poverty that these men exist within. Knowing even just a little bit about the often brutal history of European colonialism in the Congo--not to mention the present political violence of the complicated Congo civil wars--the visuals of such conspicuous consumption invites questions about the persistence of Western colonialist codes and mores--and how they mutate and yet endure. It's fascinating to see the whole trope of Parisian elegance in an African context, but it invites all kinds of unease to think about the sacrifices or dedication that a person who makes $150 a month must endure to be able to afford a $10,000 jacket--and why Parisian elegance is privileged over other ideals. (Fashion industrial complex indeed!)
But on another level, of course, if you removed these men from their backdrops and plopped them in front of a "neutral" Irving Penn- or Richard Avedon-like blank screen, there's no question at all that these men kick major style ass. I stopped reading the Sartorialist in part because it rarely surprised me, and in part because it's like, "Duh, people who work in fashion and live in fancy rich cities have access to great style, duhhhhhhhhhh." Please, someone tell me something new! But these men persist in looking amazing despite lacking funds, access, political and economic stability and probably much more I'm leaving off the list. They really, really, really love clothes--but a love of fashion and style doesn't come out of nowhere, so I really want to use these images to look at intricate, complicated histories and ideas that style emerges out of. Images like these make me remember that style is deeply personal but not just personal--there's a huge access of culture and history there with no easy answers. (It's often a great luxury of the privileged to pretend politics has nothing to do with their world.) This is what a great image does sometimes--it's a great starting point into learning more about the world, about history, about imagination and emotion--into grappling with questions that will shape and echo the world well past the time that we spend individually on this earth.
And of course, these pictures are a reminder and inspiration to dudes (and everyone) that they can dress way better and try a little harder. If these men can do it, SO CAN YOU.
---> This and this is a great intro article to SAPE and the almost-religious cult of les sapeurs.
---> If you parle francais, you can watch this doc about les sapeurs on YouTube. Even if you're not Frenchy, it's worth just zipping through just to see some of these dudes' suits!
---> A nice editorial from Colors magazine that delves into the relationship between music and SAPE and has some more great images.
---> More detailed info about the influence of a Congo music star and SAPE
---> There's a book I want to check out now about SAPE
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