Ode to the sartorially inclined
By Kudakwashe Natasha Maradzika. Copyright 2011.
Dapper, dandy, stylish, suave and now sapeur. Derived from a term used in one of Papa Wemba's songs and similarly “derived from the ‘Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes/Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance”, the word 'sape' is a French term for the sartorial man, a man with style and a man who knows who he is and who speaks volumes with the glimmer of his watch, the swish of his vintage scarf and the confident stride he has in his tailored suit. The history of the term ‘sape’ can be dated back to cultural and musical influences of Congo Brazzaville circa 1940’s, a presence that cements the enduring relationship between fashion and music in Africa ten years before Chuck Berry pioneered the contemporary rock and roll guitar sound with a clean polished look and a tonne of confidence to boot.
The sapeurs were the first generation of the African urban working class men and although some have referred to them as the “the fashion victims of Congo”who spend up to $ 1000 on a suit, one cannot deny the aspirant glamour, the drive for success, the manifestation of the urban rêve and the sense of escapism they arouse with their flamboyant and stylish garb. They bring to mind classic African films like Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki and the newly released and critically-acclaimed Congolese film Viva Riva. These are films that encapsulate the ennuie and the sense of claustrophobia and imprisonment that life in low-income urban settings in Africa sometimes evokes.
The sapeurs are Africa’s original swag and bling kings, the only difference is that their dressing forms a cultural identity with the metaphor of individualism and self-expression taking centre-stage, leaving a distinct imprint on society whilst reappropriating the simulacra of colonialism and simultaneously enrichening aspects of Congolese culture. They are the Gentlemen of Bacongo, the paradoxical clash between fashion and poverty and the product of the hustler / survivor mentality that pervades the ghettos of Africa. As a Congolese sapeur stated in an excerpt from Daniele Tamagni's 2009 book, Gentlemen of Bacongo, "a Congolese sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body."
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this sub-culture comes in the proliferation of similar style- savvy individuals in the contemporary African diaspora. Formed by New Yorkers Joshua Kissi of Ghanaian descent and Travis Gribbs, Streetetiquette.com similarly celebrates the dichotomies that exist in black culture, from the harsh urban settings to the chic and polished tailoring, styling and swag of rap royalty. These sartorial geniuses featured in November's ELLE magazine, were lauded by The New York Times for “pushing the boundaries of black fashion” with their blog Street Etiquette. This pair is distinctive from the plethora of other style blogs in that they allow different influences, from Kissis’ Ghanaian cultural heritage, (Kente cloth scarves and beaded hand-cuffs anyone?), to aspects of sapeurism and the evolution of hip-hop dressing and African-American identity itself (from Kangol hats to baseball jackets to skinny-cut trousers, preppy loafers and suspenders), to weave through their personal style, creating a distinctl style they simply refer to as “intellectual prep”.
ELLE Magazine, November 2011. South African Edition, pgs 160 to 162.
Image 1 from Pop-Africana
Image 2 & 3 from Streetetiquette's 'Fall Etiquette: Motorcycle Jacket' self-styled shoot.
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