Congo – a country where there are still dandies

Congo – a country where there are still dandies

In the late 40’s in the Soviet Union began to emerge a fashion for bright and stylish clothes among men who were called dandy. But in the 60s this trend gradually died out, however, dandies exist even today, and they live in the Congo. Many tourists come here just for the local stilyagas, because they serve as a landmark of this poor African country.

How did the dandies start in the Congo?

Representatives of La Scape subculture with bright clothes from famous brands stand out strongly against the background of devastation and poverty. True, all these fashionable people are not rich or gangsters, but ordinary workers who keep expensive clothes in old closets or on the backs of chairs, sometimes in rented earthen huts.

The fashion trend first emerged in the Congo in the 1920s . The locals had fought on the side of the British and Belgians, and when they returned home, they brought European clothes with them. The former soldiers looked completely different, their appearance impeccable to the locals, associated with wealth . In just a couple of decades, the La Scape subculture became so ingrained in this country that a “clothing religion” emerged and its founder was the local singer Papa Wemba.

Congo - a country where there are still dandies - Photo 2

How did the dandies start in the Congo?

With the African singer a new trend appeared, which included men who worshipped beautiful clothes. In the 60’s there was even an acronym of SAPE. In the community of SAPE included advanced and elegant people, which in society were called “sappers.

How do modern dandies live?

Nowadays, members of the SAPE community dress in expensive clothes only in their free time . They gather in bars, greeting each other and performing simple dances in public to show off their outfits. Each “sapper” tries to look different from the other members of the community. So they develop their gestures and facial expressions, move differently and speak differently.

Every Sunday, competitions are held in the city, where they choose the most stylish stylist for the whole week. In this case, it is important not only clothes, as much as the ability to present yourself to the local audience. Among the “sappers” has its own language, which is called “lari”. The language consists of a mixture of African and French words.

Congo is a country where there are still stilyagi - Photo 3

How do modern dandies live?

Locals are proud of their dandies, they are known by sight in every neighborhood and are greeted with a smile on their faces. Naturally, this only encourages dandies to buy new expensive things and maintain their status in society. To buy trendy shoes, locals save up for years, because the cost of branded goods sometimes costs as much as an entire plot.

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Foreigners are surprised by this passion for fashionable things. Theoretically, a person who can afford to spend a few thousand dollars on shoes could spend the money in a much more practical way. Unfortunately, many Congo dandies go into debt to look fashionable and bankrupt their families.

For Congo dandies, clothing is important, but the subculture is about something else.

Each city in the republic has its own rules for style. For example, in Kinshasa, men may use many colors in their attire, but in Brazzaville, this number is limited to three shades. What’s more, every color means something, and all sappers should know it to avoid embarrassment. “Bomb squad” can’t stand fakes. Therefore, all the clothes and accessories here are really original and very expensive. It is also unacceptable to dress exactly the same as other “colleagues” in the community, it is considered that this is no longer stilyagi, but a soccer team.

Congo is a country with dandies - photo 4

For Congo dandies, clothing is important, but the subculture is about something else.

It is not enough to wear expensive clothes to become a member of the SAPE community. It is also important to comply with certain rules, for example, the dandy should never give up, he is obliged to observe hygiene and more. And most importantly, the “sapper” must always listen to his elders, respect society and not sow violence.

It is the aversion to violence that is the most important advantage of all stylists from the Congo. They completely refuse to speak out against other people and even animals. Unfortunately, there are still interracial conflicts in African countries, and the SAPEs show by their appearance that they do not want to get involved in all this strife.

Up until the 1990s, the stylists in the Congo were persecuted for their protest to participate in conflicts. Then the situation began to change, today members of the community help even foreigners from Europe and the United States. In 2010, women began to appear in the dandy society who decided to develop the subculture at a new level.

“La Sape” – stilyagi from Congo.

If you see men dressed in brightly colored costumes in the capital of the Congo, do not think that Brazzaville is a Brazilian carnival-like holiday. No, these are the members of La Sape, the Society of Elegant Men. It’s impossible not to notice the “sappers” walking around Brazzaville or Kinshasa.

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These guys are so called because they are members of the subculture “La Sape”, they wear only elegant and fashionable clothes of famous brands (Yves Saint Laurent suits, Versace ties, Prada glasses).

These African fashionistas are not millionaires, gangsters or officials. Almost all of them are ordinary proletarians from Brazzaville. Ordinary cab drivers, locksmiths, clerks, and even farmers save for months in order to buy the chicest suits and accessories by local standards. It costs at least $300 to put together a fashionable closet (that’s about five months’ salary in Brazzaville). To pick up their looks, they take out loans from the bank or, starving, save $10-15 every month. Once in SAPE society, they gather in their clubs, dance intricate retro-style dances and try to become a style icon for their own neighborhood.

The Congolese even have a Sunday tradition, also known as “Wrestling Days”, when the main authorities take their best outfits out of their closets and head to the southern district of the city, Bakongo, where they catch the admiring and astonished looks of passersby and friendly compete with each other for the title of the most stylish sapper. It’s not enough to buy a luxury suit with your savings, you have to be able to create a tasteful image.

The SAPE movement dates back to the colonial era and is associated with not the most pleasant time in the history of the Congo. Colonizers of that era often preferred not to pay their black servants, forcing them to make do with only food, shelter, and the shabby clothes from the bargeman’s shoulder.

The servants, in turn, tried to take advantage of the situation and began to use things to raise their status among their fellow tribesmen. They wore European clothes as if they had ordered them from the best ateliers in Paris or Brussels.

Apparently, they had enough charisma and artistry to convince their fellow tribesmen that this was the indisputable model of taste and elegance. When the colonial era came to an end and the Congo (both French and Belgian) suffered many blows of fate, the thirst for style was reawakened.

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If one considers this fashion craze as a religion, then the god would certainly be André Bernand Matsua, the first man of the Congo, who brought back from his trip to France not only fresh memories of the fashion capital, but also stylish Parisian clothes. Almost a century has passed since 1922, and the Congolese pioneer is still considered by dandies from Africa an unshakable authority and adorns the walls of houses of many dandies with his portrait.

The movement was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, among African youths protesting against the dictatorial regime of the current president, Mobutu Sese Seko. La Sape later moved to the other side of the river, to the capital city of the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville, which to this day is the home of black dandies. After the end of World War II, Congolese soldiers returned home with trophies from France – shabby but trademark suits, shirts and boots. It was then that the young people of Brazzaville began a Sunday tradition of showing each other their newly acquired outfits, a thread which still runs through today.

In the 1960s, the SAPE movement had already taken shape: there was an acronym, a subculture, and its own slang. SAPE translates as “Community of Advanced and Elegant People”.

The ideology of les sapeurs is quite simple: to enjoy life even in spite of the dirt and destruction, to always be in a positive frame of mind and energize everyone around. Even those unfortunate people who do not know anything about style and laugh offensively at the fashionistas.

African dandyism has survived three civil wars already, resurrecting itself during each break and becoming more and more popular. Only once, in 1997, “La Sape” underwent “extinction” and did not resume its usual, measured flow until early 2002.

Most of the Congolese fashionistas have “European” nicknames in addition to bright colored clothes: Serge “Mercedes”, Benoit “Christian Dior”, Pierre “Rolex”, Jean “Sarkozy”, Xavier “Parker”, etc.

The adherents of the movement pursue moral rules rooted in the Ten Commandments, introduced in 2000 by Ben Mukacha, one of the brightest representatives of the movement. Among the dandy “laws” can be found such as “respect Sapeology in all situations,” “never give up,” “maintain strict standards of hygiene,” “not be a Nazi, a racist, an ageist,” “not behave impudently and impolitely toward others. “respect your elders” and “observe the rules of publicity of the movement,” “follow the commandments and recite prayer regularly, by which to achieve complete deliverance from sapophobes (people sharply negative against sapophobes).”

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Adherents of a fashionable ideology enthusiastically enumerate to foreign journalists the bombastic precepts that have become for them the principles of life. For them, dandyism is more than just a favorite pastime: it is a separate life where real emotions can be experienced, where there are even trademark forehead-to-brow greetings, dialect words to describe a dynamic gait, and Larry’s own language, consisting of a synthesis of French neologisms and words from the Congo language.

Congolese dandies also have non-controversial rules, the observance of which is equally important. This refers to individual style: the number of colors in the image should not exceed three shades. However, while Brazzaville dandies are delicately reticent to choose a color scheme in their next outfit, their Kinshasa neighbors across the river from the Democratic Republic of Congo are bolder in this matter: experimenting with the number of garish colors is commonplace for them and a means to express personal freedoms, which were subjected to restrictions between 1965 and 1997. At the time Mobutu was in power, La Sape ceased to exist because of what he saw as its over-reliance on Western traditions.

The activities of the Brazzaville dandies were also initially distrusted by the government: in the 1980s there was regularly an idea to prohibit the sappers to display their colorful images in public places. Now there is no trace of such ideas – the dandy movement is firmly embedded in the cultural heritage of the state, as stated by the President of the Republic Denis Sassou Nguesso, while approving the participation of sappers in such public events as the African Fashion and Handicraft Exhibition.

Despite the lack of difficulties with the current regime, La Sape still continues to position itself as an act of social protest. Only this time they are no longer fighting against the state system, but against the structure of the modern world: against the stifling poverty and civil wars that devastate everything in their path.

According to the World Health Organization, the Republic of Congo has an annual per capita income of $3,240, which would be enough to buy just one pair of J.M. Weston crocodile skin boots. As part of their paradoxical fascination, dandies sacrifice the opportunity to buy a larger plot of land, move into a better house or get their own car. The craving for the beautiful and expensive art of style prevails over the basic necessities of life for the average Congolese person.

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Many desperate fashionistas resort to extreme measures: borrowing large sums from wealthier comrades, taking large numbers of loans in a tiny period of time; workers – stealing from company budgets; those who are younger – from their parents’ pockets. The sappers, unknowingly, violate the rule of no impudence in their behavior, hiding both the cost of the suits and the means of earning them from their close relatives. An unquenchable zeal for high-fashion standards provokes more and more cases of bankrupt families: currently, according to the World Bank, 46.5 percent of Congolese live below the poverty line.

Dandyism is a real art form for Congolese people. The moments when it is possible to choose the perfect combination of closet items, and then walk to the street bars on the main street of Brazzaville, Avenue Matsua, are an opportunity for men to put on their eyes childishly pink glasses, through the lens of which one would not see the horror of the urban landscape, and run away from the terrible poverty coming on the heels of it.

This social phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by European “researchers. Milan-based street photographer Daniel Tamani was one of the first to aim his lens at Congolese fashionistas. When he first visited the sappers’ habitat in 2006, the young man was instantly captivated by the catchy authenticity of the African style. Over the next two years, Tamani built bridges with the leaders of La Sape and tried to delve as deeply as possible into the current to better understand it. The photographer also published a book, Gentlemen of Bacongo, about the phenomenon of dandyism in the capital of the Republic, in which he placed a series of his controversial Brazzaville photographs.

He dedicated his project to one of the first Congolese he had the privilege of meeting and even befriending (the man died a few months after his first meeting). The Italian wanted his works not just to depict the phenomenon of African street culture: to lead the viewer to reflect on the contrast of the social world and to introduce him to the values that are different from ours, but at the same time so much alike – these are the main objectives of Tamani’s cultural project.

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