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Nathaniel Adams

Nathaniel Adams is a dandy, writer, and custom suit-maker living in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the coauthor, with the photographer Rose Callahan of the books I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman and We Are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman Around the World. He has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, Men’s Journal, GQ.com, Harper’s Bazaar Russia, Uproxx, among others.

The PRISM blog series is maintained by Amit Shah, Managing Director of Green Comma, to promote critical thinking and to value different perspectives in the study of history, geography, and culture.

The material is being offered, free, as a teaching and discussion resource in middle, high school, and freshman college classrooms.

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Sapeurs: You Cannot Choose Your Life, but You Can Choose Your Clothes

On a dusty street in Brazzaville, capital city of the Republic of the Congo, a man in a bright pink suit and bowler hat struts confidently, cane in hand and cigar in mouth, nimbly avoiding the many potholes so as not to scuff his perfectly-polished shoes. Barefoot African children in second, third, and fourth-hand t-shirts from Western charity organizations jump and cheer as he passes, calling out encouragement and his nickname “Le Roi du Coleur!” — “The King of Color!” He is a member of “Le Sape:” the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Ambiance-makers and Elegant People,) known to the Congolese — and increasingly the rest of the world — as “The Sapeurs.

The Sapeurs are a local African subculture with roots in the history of European colonization of the continent and a global influence today thanks to the post-colonial African diaspora. Although similar to other style and fashion-based subcultures, the Sapeurs are uniquely Congolese, and are found primarily in the twin cities of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo. The two capitals sit side by side, visible to each other across the Congo River, although the cities, the nations they represent, and their cultures are very different from one another, thanks to divergent histories and circumstances.

What is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was once known as Belgian Congo, and exploited for its natural and mineral resources by the government of King Leopold II of Belgium, who ruled the vast and rich country with a small colonial military force that brutally repressed the native population. Across the river, what is now the Republic of Congo was taken over as a colony by the French, who similarly extracted wealth from the land at great cost of native suffering and misery. The city of Brazzaville became famous during the Second World War as the defacto capital of the Free French government-in-exile.

Historians trace the roots of Le Sape in both countries to the colonial era. Native Congolese who worked in the homes of Europeans or in lower positions in the colonial civil services were exposed to European fashions. Around the same time, the global movement of goods made possible by colonial trade enabled local merchants to stock internationally made products that Africans would never have been able to acquire before. Clothing quickly became an important means of displaying status, style, and taste among the urban Congolese in Brazzaville and Kinshasa (then Leopoldville.) This trend did not go unnoticed by the colonizers.

As early as 1913, a French Baron wrote disapprovingly and mockingly that

“…the locals in the region of Brazzaville dress up too much, and, on Sunday, those that have several pairs of pants, several cardigans, put these clothes on one layer over the other, to flaunt their wealth. Many pride themselves on following Parisian fashion and, having known that not long ago Europeans joked about the black’s passion for the top hat, so inappropriate for the tropical climate and completing in a sometimes comic manner an outfit which was more than scanty, most of them have given up and now sport elegant panama hats.”( (Robert Ross: Clothing: A Global History.)

By the 1930s, the Congolese had become connoisseurs of elegance in their own right, developing their own fashions and recognizing the quality of garments. One clerk wrote in a letter to a friend:

“Do you know that in Brazzaville and Kinshasa all the gentlemen or young men are dressing in Popo? That is to say, owning a helmet from Ollivants worth 150 francs, a silk shirt, a suit of poplin, or other fabric that is worth 250 to 300 francs at least and trousers which must reach down to touch the heels of one’s shoes. Well-dressed women are wearing silk head scarves that cost 50 francs each and their clothes, costing 150 francs, must be well-cut by a skilled tailor… The town of Brazzaville is developing and so are its inhabitants.” (Robert Ross)

This obsession with European fashions among the native Congolese remains controversial to this day: Were they blindly mimicking the styles of their rulers? Rejecting their Africanness and trying to be European? Was this a shallow and materialistic pursuit? A shameful and selfish indulgence? Or was this an act of individual creativity and something to be celebrated?

There are points to be made in favor of all of the above, as well as convincing arguments on all sides. There is some truth to all of those things, but what is most clear is that clothing and fashion became an obsession among the urban Congolese of the twin cities to a degree that it hadn’t in many other parts of Africa. After the Second World War, local textile factories and a proliferation of professional tailors and seamstresses made finer clothing even more accessible, and as a growing number of native Kinshasans and Brazzavillois were able to travel to the colonial seats of Brussels and Paris, they brought back even more knowledge and actual clothing from Europe. It was this international cultural and commercial connection between the European and African metropolises that allowed Le Sape to ultimately arise.

In the 1950s the first youth clubs centered around fashion began in the Bacongo section of Brazzaville, bearing names like Simple et Bien, Cabaret, and Existentialistes, after Jean-Paul Sartre’s then in-vogue philosophy of the same name. The names of the clubs and styles of the time — pegged trousers, moccasin shoes, jackets with padded shoulders — are reminiscent of other contemporary global subcultures: the American beatniks of Greenwich Village and the traditional jazz scene in London’s Soho which would ultimately become the Mod subculture. Again, what was seen as such flamboyant materialism among teenagers was remarked upon by some with disapproval; newspaper articles decried the idea of young people throwing their hard-earned money away on luxuries. But it was in this scene of style and energy that the next generation of Congo’s intellectual and cultural elite would come of age.

When both the Congolese nations gained independence in 1960, the movements that became Le Sape were born and took on new political significance. Congo-Brazzaville became a socialist client state of the Soviet Union while Congo-Leopoldville (soon renamed Zaire or Congo-Kinshasa,) became a client of the United States, who believed the large and wealthy country would be a bulwark against communism on the African continent. Congo-Brazzaville underwent a series of frequent coups and assassinations over the next several decades, while Zaire fell under the long one-party rule of strongman Joseph Mobutu.

The rulers of both nations tried to capitalize on the emotional ideas of African nationalism sweeping the continent during the independence movements of the 1960’s. One aspect of this was the promotion of native African clothing styles and materials over Western dress. Suddenly, wearing a suit and tie became a political statement of a kind. At the same time, political unrest resulted in more Congolese emigrating, leading to growing populations in European cities who maintained their connections to their friends and families back in Congo. It was in this period that Le Sape came into its own.

Because of its political implications, Le Sape in both countries had to remain somewhat underground. Devotees continued to spend a large percentage of their income on clothing, and they met every weekend at their favorite nightclubs to show off their latest designer clothing and dance to the music of Sapeur icons like Kinshasa’s Papa Wemba. Against great odds and at some danger to themselves, they created and maintained a sartorial and cultural tradition. The Sapeurs are most like the British working class teenage Mod subculture, which was once perfectly defined by Peter Meaden, manager of rock band The Who, as “clean living under difficult circumstances.”

The style of the Sapeurs in the two cities diverged at some point, a difference still visible today: in Kinshasa the Sapeurs are more eclectic, taking their inspiration from haute couture and mixing in sportswear and streetwear. In Brazzaville the emphasis remains on formal clothing and elegant tailoring, although always in bold colors and styles. Both groups are obsessed with brand names and labels, but while the Kinshasa Sapeurs are avid runway-watchers and trend-chasers, the Sapeurs of Brazzaville aspire to a classic style made fresh by injections of flamboyance. Some Brazzavillois Sapeurs have started their own sub-groups inspired by different styles: female Sapeurs in expertly-tailored suits, or Anglophile Sapeurs who wear kilts and Savile Row-style jackets.

Both sects of Sapeurs are members of the poor urban working class, and their performance of conspicuous consumption is deliberate and defiant — for example, they all carry expensive cigars, although they never light them because buying a new one would be too expensive. Of course, they spend an inordinate percentage of their income on their clothing — just as, they like to point out, their fathers and grandfathers did before them. And just as in their grandfathers’ time, there is no shortage of commentators ready to disparage what they do: Le Sape is accused of encouraging materialism, superficiality, frivolousness, selfishness, consumerism, short-sightedness, and a life of crime.

Why, the critics ask, would a young urban Congolese waste his time and money playing dress up in expensive clothing when our nations have such great problems of poverty, corruption, crime, lack of education, backwardness and disease? Shouldn’t such obvious creative energy go toward solving those issues rather than strutting around in a suit? To these charges the Sapeurs and their defenders respond that they are the creators and custodians of a long-standing Congolese cultural tradition, a practice that has made their cities and their neighborhoods internationally famous, and that Le Sape embodies and represents a distinctly Congolese brand of joie de vivre, an indomitable celebration of life and beauty that has survived through the darkest times of their nations and will continue to thrive into the future.

Solange Knowles with sapeurs

In recent years the Sapeurs have, indeed, become internationally famous, first from the book “Gentlemen of Bacongo,” by Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni, and then from various international photography exhibits featuring them, including the “Dandy Lion” exhibit and book on Black Dandyism by Shantrelle Patrice Lewis. There have been several TV and online documentaries about Sapeur communities in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, as well as Sapeurs living in Paris, Brussels, and London. One short documentary was made by the Guinness beer company, who also featured the Sapeurs in one of their internationally-shown commercials.

After more than a century of sartorial elegance in very difficult circumstances indeed, the incredible dandies of the Congo have finally taken what they see as their rightful place as international ambassadors of style.