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La Sape

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La Sape

Franco-Congolese performer Michel N'zau Vuanda (Bantunani) in sapeur attire
La Sape, an abbreviation based on the phrase Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) and hinting to the French slang word "sape" which means "attire", is a social movement centered in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo.[1] An adherent of La Sape is called a sapeur.[2] The movement embodies the elegance in style and manners of colonial predecessor dandies as a means of resistance. They are in stark contrast with the environment they live in.

Dandy and dandyism

Dandyism was coined by and is derived from the term dandy that refers to a man who is unduly concerned with his appearance in fashion and manners.[3]

The defining characteristics of the dandy, as exemplified by historical examples such as Oscar Wilde and Byron, are flamboyant dress, close attention to personal appearance and exaggerated nonchalance.


La sape can be traced back to the early years of colonialism in Africa, and in particular Brazzaville and Kinshasa. The French mission was to civilize the “uncouth” and “naked” African people. They brought second hand clothing from Europe as a bargaining tool to gain the loyalty of the chiefs. Brazzaville soon became the “most favored residential area for whites and the seat of colonial government.” By the end of the 19th century their “houseboys” were the first to embrace European modernity because they would be given clothing instead of money as compensation for their work. The Congolese elite not only included the houseboys, but also those who held lower positions as clerks in colonial offices and other places.

The noted musician Papa Wemba has been an important supporter of La Sape in Congo

A major influence on the Congolese elite, present during the 1920s (the so-called Roaring Twenties), was West African colonial workers who came to the Congo. These Bapopo or Coastmen, as they were called, served as inspiration for the Congolese elite “to combat ingrained charges of inferiority leveled at them” by French and Belgian colonialism. Young Congolese men took the style of their masters’ and made it their own. In the historian Didier Gondola's essay titled "La Sape Exposed!: High Fashion Among Lower-Class Congolese", he says:

“Captivated by the snobbery and refined elegance of the Coast Men’s attire, Congolese houseboys spurned their masters’ secondhand clothes and became unremitting consumers and fervent connoisseurs, spending their meager wages extravagantly to acquire the latest fashions from Paris.”

The houseboys used their connections in France to acquire their clothing. One colonist looked down on the habits her houseboys in Brazzaville because while they may have been half-starved, they would still don their expensive clothing once their monthly wages came in.

According to Gondola, Camille Diata frontlined the sape movement in Brazzaville in the 1930s, but also had a deep influence in France. He was also part of L'Amicale, “a loosely organized anti-colonial movement,” formed in France in 1926 by the imaginative Congolese revolutionary Bakongo and Balari one characterized by potent political symbolism and ideology that would manifest in postcolonial era.

A Brazzaville sapeur being interviewed for Spanish documentary filmmakers (2010)

The 1950s gave rise to the cosmopolitan, thus bringing prominence to the music scene. Nightclubs and beer halls made up the venues home to the music and young urbanites of the Congolese townships of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. La Sape was synonymous with the Congolese rumba scene that surfaced and which Papa Wemba, a Congolese musician, made music about the La Sape style. During the postcolonial years, the unique dynamics of La Sape coalesced in 1960 when both Congos were granted independence. Economic chaos ensued and many were left jobless. This caused numerous Congolese people to move abroad to western cities like London and Paris. Since they were also not very welcome, La Sape acted as refuge for them to cope with European life.


Congolese dandies living in Paris and other European cities were only deemed sapeur once they returned to Brazzaville in the summer to showcase their style before the mid-1990s.

Although war and strife had riddled the Congo over the years, there has been a revival of La Sape in Brazzaville. Whereas before in the early 1980s when campaigns were being prompted to bar La Sape from public spaces, they are now well respected and are “darlings of the regime.” They have been raised to a higher status of “cultural heritage” by Denis Sassou Nguesso by allowing them to participate in public cultural events like the African Exhibit of Fashion and Crafts (Salon africain de la mode et de l’artisanat).

Gondola argues that:

“Today, with both countries in turmoil, la sape, with its exuberant flamboyance may well serve as a lighting rod for the Congolese disenfranchised youth to map out their itinerary from Third World status to a modern cosmopolitanism and to cope with their social dereliction.”


They are all different in age, profession, and personality as well as in their look and taste in clothing. Almost all of them know each other.

Cultural influences

Music artist Solange drew inspiration from La Sape for her music video "Losing You"[4] released October 2012. It was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, and Solange worked with director Melina Matsoukas to showcase the “beauty and fascination of the Congo’s Le Sapeurs.”

Sapeur being interviewed for the documentary "Dimanche à Brazzaville"

In an interview with David M. Ewalt, media theorist Henry Jenkins described the traditional cosmopolitan as someone who escapes the orbit of their own parochial culture through high culture and absorption of the values attached to that culture. This includes luxuries such as opera, ballet, paintings, etc. However, the pop cosmopolitan is the modern teenager. He used America to illustrate this point through teenagers today who learn, absorb, and interact with various facets of Asian cultures as a means of escaping the limitations of American culture. They use the Internet and technology to connect with other cultures. Social networks are a force toward globalization and it is this very connectivity that allows modern globalization to thrive. Luke Warm, the author of the article on “Losing You” argues for two varying readings of the video.[5] One is that the video could be seen as African culture being exoticized through the liberated Le Sape. The other is that her video is an example of what Jenkins describes pop cosmopolitanism to be. Warm says that Solange escapes the narrow scope of American culture through an attempt at returning to her “roots,” a culture and history unfamiliar to her. Warm goes further to describe Le Sape as another example of Pop Cosmopolitanism because the members take on “English Gentleman chic” transcending that of their oppressors.

This “English Gentlemen chic” can be expanded on because the Congo was colonized by the French, so Le Sape and its manifestation in the Congo had more of a French influence over any other.[6] [1]

Sapeurs also served as inspiration for Gentlemen of Bacongo: The Importance of Being Elegant[2], a book written by Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni. In the introduction by Paul Goodwin, he says:

“It is at once a throwback to colonial patterns of behavior and conditioning while at the same time signalling a particular post-colonial appropriation of the master’s style and manners and remixing them for today’s society of the spectacle.”[7]

English designer Paul Smith wrote the preface for Italian photographer’s book Gentlemen of Bacongo and also drew inspiration from them. Firstly, he described the opportunity to write about them as a privilege. Then Smith says:

“Their style appeals to me because right from the beginning of my career I have always worked with classical shapes, and strived for beautiful quality, whilst the main emphasis of my work has come from the use of colour, and the unusual coordination of fabrics. As a designer, I have for years also played with the opposites and the unexpected in my work, a classical jacket with an unusual lining for example.”[7]

Sapeurs are shown in a film "35 Cows and a Kalashnikov" (2014) by Oswald von Richthofen.


  1. ^ [3]
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  7. ^ a b

External links

  • The Congolese Sape – photo essay by Héctor Mediavilla
  • "Sunday in Brazzaville / Dimanche à Brazzaville" on Vimeo (trailer)
  • The Sapeurs of Kinshasa on BBC World Service

See also

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