A new monograph by Daniele Tamagni explores the phenomenon of sapeurs, a clique of extraordinarily dressed dandies from the Congo. In the midst of war and abject poverty, these men dress in tailored suits and silk ties.
As is true with most subcultures, there is a slew of etiquette that sapeurs abide by: socks must be a certain height, jacket vents of 32 centimeters are preferred, and a maximum of three colors can be used in one outfit. Men with bespoke suits often leave the bottom cuff button undone to casually indicate their sartorial know-how, since one of the tell-tale distinctions between an off-the-rack suit and a tailored one is working buttonholes.
The term sapeur comes from la SAPE, short for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People. The SAPE, like any club, has rules of conduct and of dress; it’s centered around Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the adjacent capitals of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, respectively.
Patty Chang, who reviewed a documentary on the subject entitled The Importance of Being Elegant compares the sapeurs to hip-hop stars who come out of extraordinary poverty in America craving designer labels as status markers, and indeed there is a line that can be drawn between la sape and “the glorification of material excess found in hip hop culture.” However la sape undoubtedly predates hip-hop; it owes as much to the 19th century concept of the dandy as it does to anything else. (To add another layer of influence, the style of dress which the sapeurs appropriate is that of the French and Belgian colonists who seized control over the Congo during the 1880s.)
Baudelaire wrote that we employ fashion to present our ideal selves to the world. Although the ultimate purpose of fashion photography is to promote high-end products, the images often indicate a more multifaceted approach. What is sold here is not simply a product, but a certain lifestyle. Fashion and art are glamorous currency - out of reach for most people, yet presented as imminently desirable. To be of this world means that viewers and consumers enlist in the belief that the luxury of self-expression is something we can purchase and therefore control.
As such, it’s hard to know how to read this particular trend: is this a post-colonial appropriation of the oppressors’ style of dress? Or an example of a subjugated and still impoverished people drawn into spending untold sums on European labels?