La Sape: Tracing the History and Future of the Congos' Well-Dressed Men
Steinkopf-Frank, Hannah Rose
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Steinkopf-Frank, Hannah Rose
This thesis explores the past, current, and future significance of la Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes (la Sape), a social movement of well-dressed men that began in the two Congos in the 1980s. Sapeurs, members of la Sape, spend large sums of money on designer clothes, which they show off at social gatherings and use as a signifier of identity and community. Over the decades, la Sape has received more Western media attention, as it has increasingly become an international movement. In particular, Sapeur communities have developed within the larger African diaspora in France and Belgium, the former colonizers of the Republic of the Congo (ROC) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), respectively. The largest Sapeur communities are in Paris and Brussels, although smaller communities have popped up in other fashion capitals such as London. I conducted field research in Paris and Brussels in January 2017, interviewing a diverse group of Sapeurs and others connected to the movement. The Sapeurs were primarily from one of the two Congos, although a few were born in Europe. Coming from different generations, places, and backgrounds, they represent the diversity of la Sape. I also interviewed members of other dandy and fashion movements connected to la Sape. My field research responded to and informed the four central questions of this thesis Why has la Sape proven to be such a long-lasting, international movement? La Sape is so resilient because of the historical significance of both clothing and patrilineal relationships in Central Africa. When Europeans brought Western garments to Central Africa, they were exploiting a preexisting fashion culture. La Sape grew largely from older members of the movement, both blood relatives and not, giving clothes to younger Congolese who would one day become Sapeurs. In addition, many of the issues that encouraged young Congolese to turn to fashion as a form of artistic resilience and identity building still exist today. Fashion continues to be a way to fulfill the dream of many Congolese to achieve the markers of a good life, which their countries do not allow them to pursue in a traditional manner due to continued political, social, and economic instability. How can la Sape be used to understand the effects of colonialism and the continued colonial legacy? More than a simple adoption of European clothes as a classic case of neocolonialism, la Sape is arguably a reflection of Congolese cultural values. While the Sapeur might wear a Western suit, it is to present an image of social prestige in his own community. As with the “retour” to Africa, it is arguably not important if the Sapeur is able to find work and financial stability in Europe as long as he is able to present an image of his accomplishments when he returns to Central Africa. Significantly, with increased globalization and the Americanization of culture, many Congolese — particularly youth — are now turning to the United States and American fashion and music as sources of inspiration. What does it mean to be a Sapeur in an increasingly globalized and connected world? Although older Sapeurs have preserved a more traditional understanding of the movement, younger members, particularly those born in Europe, have worked to expand la Sape and separate it from the negative stereotypes that highlight its darker side. As la Sape is increasingly represented in news media, advertisements, books, songs, and fashion collections, Sapeurs are using social media platforms to control how they as individuals and as a collective are represented. What is the future of la Sape? Although Sapeurs are more visual than ever with increased attention in European and international media, the future of the movement is unclear, especially with the death of many of its leaders. Many older Sapeurs are confident in la Sape’s prospects, although this might be more a reflection of their own desire for self-preservation than a sentiment based in reality. At least in Europe, many young Congolese are drawn to other fashion-related movements that are more inclusive of people from different backgrounds and put a larger emphasize on hard work and forming solidarity through clothes. Consequently, many Sapeurs believe the movement will only continue if it becomes an integrated part of the Congos’ political and economic systems through wider recognition of its cultural and historical significance.