Arts, Culture and Sport
“Les Sapeurs”, Black Dandyism and the genesis of gender fluid African fashion
African youths are today positioned where cultural identities intermingle and there is a need to embrace a contemporary style that merges those identities. Black dandyism inspired by Les Sapeurs of Central Africa has helped curate a well-groomed aesthetic that is refined but inclusive of African sensibilities.
Black Dandyism was brought to us by the Sapeurs, which stands for “Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes” (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People); a subculture well known within the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This curious society of gentlemen turned the art of dressing into a cultural statement and did it with literal style. The Sapeurs style is all decadence, flamboyant colour, polished tailoring, and impeccable attention to detail. They explore staples not much used in men’s fashion, like powder and blush colours and jaunty evening silk scarves.
The distinct style merges black resistance and ingenuity. During colonialism in the 19th century, servants often got paid by their wealthy employers in clothing instead of money, so they began embracing a European dress style to combat colonial superiority.
But instead of accepting the dress style as it was, Sapeurs exaggerated it into a high-fashion style with a distinctly African flair.
Sapeurism has since evolved into a fully-fledged style tribe that arguably spurred the Black Dandy movement, which in turn brought about the rise of gender-fluid fashion on the continent.
“Before bling and ghetto fabulous, before the dawn of the metrosexual, Congolese men have been pushing the limits of outlandish fashion and heterosexual male vanity, roaming the streets like walking advertisements for the world’s top labels. These fashionistas were donning fur coats and gaudy jewels as early as the 1970s,” details the Los Angeles Times.
However, buying such style isn’t cheap; a single pair of trousers can sell for as much as USD 300, and imitations are not tolerated. The average national income per capita in Congo-Brazzaville is an estimated USD 3400, which puts buying crocodile shoes for USD 1,300 or designer suits for USD 3000 in perspective.
Despite the expense, the style has endured from generation to generation as a type of social activism and life philosophy with a code of conduct to which they must abide.
“The Sapeur is a model of gentlemanly behaviour and mannerisms; it’s also the language he uses, the way he walks,” Guinness campaign director and filmmaker Hector Mediavilla told the Telegraph newspaper when the company released a Sapeur inspired Ad in 2014. “How you treat people is very important. For a man to be a Sapeur he must be gentle, he must not be aggressive, he must be against war, he must be calm tempered.”
Les Sapeurs have inspired brands and celebrities including Solange Knowles, who showcased the style in her “Losing You” video.
The modern Sapeur is female too
Sapeurism has become a cultural identity that now extends to women. Ironically the cult-like fashion movement that helped propel gender-fluid fashion in Africa remained closed to women in its country of birth for 90 years. This changed when the country’s association of sapeurs launched its first-ever recruitment drive targeting women in 2010.
The hindrance had been cultural as the male Sapeurs felt their iconic look was not appropriate for women, who are typically encouraged to wear African print dresses and skirts. But women persisted, and all-female groups are now fairly common. In the true spirit of Sapeurism, the women [Sapeuses] have added their own unique touches to the style, some using raffia, a local and traditional material.
These pioneer Sapeuses inspire other women in their country to defy society’s expectations by expressing themselves in a style reserved for men.UK journalist Sally Howard and DRC photographer Junior D Kannah brought them to the mainstream in an exhibition at London’s Brunei Gallery in 2017 and a coffee table book the following year.
“Their style is glorious. They wear suits and capes imported through contacts in Paris and Brussels by male designers such as Yōji Yamamoto and Carlo Pignatelli, accessorised by top hats and silver-topped canes. The sapeuse movement is one part political statement to two parts sartorial pizazz,” Howard told Light Foot Travel at the time.
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