“The white man may have invented clothes, but we turned it into an art” was the humble declaration of the Brazzaville Congolese musician King Kester Emeneya when asked about La SAPE or The Society of Ambience-Makers and Elegant People (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes).  Filled with joie de vivre, self-styled ‘sapeurs’ live the lives of local celebrities in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, in vibrant (and frequently expensive) clothing of their choice, providing people an entertaining distraction and attempting to combat dereliction and poverty with their superficial flamboyance. The first impression that the idea of ‘La Sape’ gives is definitely surreal, almost jarring amidst the grim realities of a post-Civil war Congo (two countries now, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo). Elvis Makouezi, the author of The Dictionary of La Sape, elaborates on the prevalence of La Sape:

La Sape in its modern form appeared in Congo-Brazzaville after the Second World War veterans returned. But as a culture and art of elegance, it stems from the princely habits of the Kingdom of Kongo, where, for instance, the Ntanga – known in Europe as the kilt – was part of the official dress code long before and long after the first Europeans arrived. The difference between the Ntanga and the kilt resided not in the quality of the fabrics but in the patterns, accessories and decorations.

The history of La Sape can be traced back to the colonial rule of France in Congo where this slowly emerged in reaction to the patronizing treatment of the French. Started by the houseboys as a form of mimicry, a reversal of the colonial gaze to some extent (albeit with uncritical reverence), Martin describes this trend:

Men wore suits and used accessories such as canes, monocles, gloves and pocket-watches on chains. They formed clubs around their interest in fashion, gathering to drink aperitifs and dance to Cuban and European music played on the phonograph.

On a quest for an identity separate from the colonized countrymen, ridiculed by the French for being scantily clad, the early sapeurs have come a long way to the other side. As historian Didier Gondola argues:

The sape is at the center of identity transformations which overwhelm Congolese youth. Study of these identity mutations does not deal stricto sensu with clothing and/or the identity it shapes. It is above all a study of their interactions and the transfer of meaning that goes from one to the other, and vice versa. Three levels of clothing, which correspond to three different stations in the sapeurs’ search for identity, will be considered. First, real clothing, which presents the sapeur as an individual who suppresses a real identity to acquire a borrowed one. Second, the griffe (expensive designer labels), which authenticates this oneiric migration, adds the finishing touches to the usurpation. Third, the spoken (and even sung or danced) clothing makes the sapeur the actor and conjurer of this identity.

The subversive politics of La Sape lies in the political commentary sapeurs engage in regarding the power they have reclaimed from the French colonizers who previously regarded their sartorial choices as highly superior from that of their ‘subjects’. Indeed, the use of sartorial items, thus the “adoption of alternative aesthetic codes”, is a rather effective method of social distinction. Having mentioned that, La Sape is not just subversion of prevalent notions regarding fashion. It has become a postcolonial tool that has sufficiently mobilized White fashion to “ produce alternate identities that resist categorization.”

Nevertheless, the life of a celebrity comes at a price. As Maxime Pivot and fellow sapeur Severin Muengo notes themselves, the life of a sapeur is a life of excess and delusion. To purchase an exorbitantly priced suit with money that could go into the future of their children is deemed impractical, even unacceptable. As stated in the voiceover of the popular advertisement by Guiness on sapeurs, la Sape is “all about defying your circumstances through inner conviction.” Yet defying one’s circumstances cannot occur at the expense of another.  Jonathan Friedman goes on to say:

We have assumed the practice of La Sape was somehow an attempt to capture power via the accumulation of the symbols of power. We did indeed argue that these symbols, la haute couture, were not expressions of but definitions of power, of the life force whose form is wealth, health, whiteness and status, all encompassed in an image of beauty. But, in understanding the world in modern terms, we failed to trace the logic through to its conclusion. The very discourse of symbolism legitimizes the materiality of power and wealth. Yet the logic of the political economy of elegance implies the converse, by undermining the significance of such realia. The state-class became great men of elegance by means of political violence and maintain that elegance by means of the theft of the state treasury, and even this can only be ultimately understood in terms of witchcraft and the magic of evil. As the accumulation of life force is the principle of the system, there is no essential difference between La Sape and other techniques of accumulation. In this logic, the sapeur’s reply to the accusation of delinquency is simply, “we are no different than you even if our methods are less violent.” Thus, in some deeper sense La Sape is all there is.

This dialogue of the colonized (albeit in postcolonial times) by the means of ‘Western’ attire is still largely rife in ideas of Western consumerism. The idea of consumerism is closely related to creating the modern notion of an individual identity–“a material realization, or attempted realization, of the image of the good life”. Not one to lose hope, Maxime Pivot informs us a change is in the air; new sapeurs are concentrating more and more on stitching together their own costumes instead of spending millions of Congolese francs to buy designer clothing.

 

Srishti Dutta Chowdhury

Srishti Dutta Chowdhury

Srishti Dutta Chowdhury is a Charles Wallace Scholar for Creative Writing in the University of Edinburgh (2016) and student of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. She is a poet, photographer and avid translator.

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