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The Sapeurs: vibrant and elegant street style from the Congo

Photos from a new coffee table book, the Gentlemen of Bacongo, by Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni. It depicts the ‘sapeurs’ of Brazzaville, Congo, and their amazing style based around tailored designer suits, bowler hats and pipes.

I love the way the sapeurs take something that is quite classic (the tailored suit) and push things forward with the use of colour and accesories. It is so rare to see interesting male style exhibited on such a scale. I am also really interested in social groups based around clothes, so I went to find out more. Here is an introduction:

Sapeurs are members of ‘Le SAPE’ (Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes), an exclusive club based around a flamboyant, but impeccably groomed style of dress. It may seem superficial, in that it elevates European haute couture designer fashions to the status of mock religion, and a big part of being a saupeur seems to be standing in the street posing. But members also have their own code of honour, based on good manners, politeness and morality. Sapeurs reject violence, as its thought that if your clothes can’t do your fighting for you, you’re not a real sapeur.

Le Sape was invented by the musician Papa Wemba in 1979, who is its king or president to this day. The cult of the Sapeur was partly a reaction to the Authenticity movement in the Congo (then Zaire), which led to the banning of all European and western styles of imported clothing in favour of a return to ‘authentic’ African clothing. Papa Wemba wanted to make it a pleasure rather than a crime to wear something from Paris.

The Sapeur cult is taken very seriously, hold its own dances, and proclaimed its own manifestos and codes (such as defining ten ways of walking in order to show off one’s couture clothes to their best degree). The Sape continues to this day and operates like a mini-state providing its own social strata: president, ministers, acolytes and so on, which presumably provides some stability and positivity during times of poverty and politcal instability.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Pictures 1- 4 are from the book (via the guardian). Pictures 5 to 8 by Hector Mediavilla.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Diana 7 December 2009, 4:44 pm

    I love this.

  • Rebecca 7 December 2009, 9:59 pm

    This is amazing! I'd never heard of the Sapeurs, but it looks and sounds like a fascinating culture. "a big part of being a saupeur seems to be standing in the street posing" – how funny. 🙂

  • Make Do Style 7 December 2009, 10:31 pm

    I love the pink suit!

  • yoli 8 December 2009, 11:37 am

    I love these pics!

  • La Historiadora de Moda 8 December 2009, 1:38 pm

    Whoa! This is really cool.

  • ambika 8 December 2009, 4:29 pm

    This is seriously the coolest thing I've seen in a long time. Thank you for posting it.

  • Missa 8 December 2009, 11:17 pm

    It is fascinating, and they are quite the dapper bunch. I'm very interested in seeing these ten ways of walking. Seems like their story would make for a great documentary film topic.

  • Andi B. Goode 9 December 2009, 7:13 am

    I love this post. Nothing better than stylish men…they're just not seen enough. And these guys are ridiculously stylish!!
    -Andi x

  • Oranges And Apples 9 December 2009, 7:47 am

    Missa, you're right! The bbc did a documentary programme on them back in 2005:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/storyville/being-elegant.shtml

  • Amy 10 December 2009, 7:01 pm

    Love this!

  • M 11 December 2009, 3:42 am

    so interesting, they look so good and…happy?

  • K8 12 December 2009, 4:53 pm

    I love learning about things like this. I've taken several anthropology classes and in cultural anthro there's a lot of academic light shed on the clothing of other cultures which is part of what made me feel as if fashion can be serious and not superficial crap like on "The City". Seriously, awesome post!

    Fashion X K8.blogspot.com