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Elegantly Dressed Men: The Sapeurs
Meet the Sapeurs
In a country that had been torn apart by decades of war, were the gross national income is a mere $3,420, a group of extraordinary men have dedicated their lives to dressing and behaving as genteel, aristocratic gentleman. They are a Sapeurs. Sapeur is an acronym for Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People). They are blue collar workers in the capital city of Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo. They have become the subject of books, media articles, a Guinness commercial and short documentary, and have even been featured in a Solange Knowles video.
Short Documentary on the SAPE
More Than Fashion
But these are not men merely playing dress up or simply putting on airs of the rich, white societies of France, Italy and London. No, for them it’s about deciding who you are; what kind of man you choose to be. As one Sapeur explained, “In life you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.”
Being a Sapeur is about joie de vivre, the joy of living. Most people focus on the fashion of the sapeurs, which is breathtaking indeed, but there is more to being a sapeur than donning designer clothing. A sapeur must be respectful to everyone. He must always be polite and never be vulgar. They say that there can be no SAPE in times of war. There is no violence in the SAPE. “Where there is peace, there is SAPE. Where there is peace, there is life. Sapeurs are all ages, from men like Severin who is in his 70s and followed in his father’s stylish footsteps, to younger sapeurs mentoring a new generation of sapeurs.
Chris Sullivan in the article, “The Gentlemen of Bakongo And Their Cult Of Elegance,” wrote:
Eminent Sapeurs show greenhorn sapeurs, the ropes: how to behave socially, how to perfect their decorum and maintain their propriety, how to dress, how to talk, how to walk. Exalted by their community, Le Sapeurs are treated like out-and-out celebrities and wallow in the warmth of exaltation like the poseurs they indubitably are. Often paid to attend weddings, funerals and anniversaries their role is to confer events with a certain je nest sais quoi that, inherited from an infinitely more courteous age, is entirely deficient in this the 21st Century.
The Sapeurs support one another. They borrow and exchange clothing which is a necessity when a pair of crocodile shoes from France cost nearly as much as the gross national product. Each Sapeur has his own style and is inspired by different influences. Sapeur ensembles run the gamut from bright blues and oranges to soft pastels and sedate neutrals. Influences from styles from the forties to now are expertly mixed. Some sapeurs even prefer the traditional dress of Scotsmen, kilts, wool socks, and fur purses. Common items are braces, not belts, hand-crafted Italian ties, fedoras, neatly folded pocket squares, designer wrist watches, parasols, umbrellas, and antique pocket watches on gold chains.
Although the ensembles of the Sapeurs are colorful, no more than three colors are allowed. Often the well-dressed Sapeur keeps to one color family; a red fedora, pink suit, and a red carnation on his lapel.
History of SAPE
The SAPE began when the Congo was a French colony and it is indeed the dream of many Sapeurs to go to France, the fashion capital of the world, although few are ever able to. The Congolese were fascinated by the French modes of dress and mannerisms and sought to emulate them. SAPE evolved over time and in the 1970s it took on aspects of rumba musicians of the time. Famous Brazzaville Sapeur and rumba musician King Kester Emeneya once said, ““The white man might have invented clothes, but we have turned it into an art.”
Solange Knowles featuring Les Sapes
SAPE is also revolutionary. In the 1960s and 1970s, president Mobuto banned the wearing of European clothes. Congolese men were directed to wear traditional attire. In the short documentary produced by Guinness, Severin shows where he buried the fine clothes he collected for years during that time and mourns their loss to the heat and decay.
SAPE is about “defying circumstance” and joyful living. Despite hardships and living in abject poverty, the Sapeurs have found an escape and joy in their fine clothing and gentlemanly manners.
I would love to see a trend toward creating a Society of Elegant Persons everywhere. Where no matter what the circumstances everyone took pride in his appearance and conducted himself in a gentlemanly manner.