Have you heard of the Sapeuses of Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo? If you are a tourist, the colorful and bold outfits of a few group of persons will definitely catch your attention.
It is a common scene in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, seeing women dress like the men. These women belong to the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People), or SAPE.
They dress like their impeccably dressed men, and spend so much money on a suit. They don’t mind if they go without food or have running water in order to save enough money for their designer accessories.
These women have ordinary day employments such as tailors, traders, or even police officers. However, when workday is over, you find them transform into fashionistas with expensive outfits and accessories.
They are respected and treated like celebrities on the street and defy the present condition of their lives by offering “joie de vivre” to their people meaning joy of living for those not familiar with the French language. We find them spend money on silk soaks and ornate umbrellas even though they live in poverty.
However, the SAPE movement has a mission to lift the spirit of the Congolese. Over the years, the group has worked as a type of colonial resistance, peaceful protest, and social activism.
La Sape is an abbreviation of Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. In French, it literally means “Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People.” The females are referred to as the Sapeuse.
Okili (centre), 10, struts through the neighbourhood with his mother Judith (right) and her friend. The art of the sape is about turning heads wherever you go. Okili has been a sapeur for five years. He is still at school and his favourite item of clothing is his Yves Saint Laurent suit. 7 Sep 2017, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo
This people embody the manners of their colonial predecessor dandies and dresses elegantly in style. The Sapeuses came out from the Sapeuers, who are the male sartorial resistance movement that started in the 1920s.
The Sapeuers sought to fight and resist the Belgian and French colonial system by imitating and adopting their master’s outfit. ‘Dapper’ Papa Wemba, a rumba artist started this movement with his stunning white suits and monochrome spats.
Ntsimba, 52, has been a Sapeuse for 20 years. She has two children and is a housewife. She wears a white linen Jean Courcel suit, Chanel bowtie, Versace glasses and J M Weston shoes to sit on a neighbour’s sofa. 6 Sep 2017, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo
He influenced the Sapeuers who went on to enter the mainstream politics of the country. The controversial president of the country, Joseph Kabila, is proudly a self-confessed Sapeur. Congolese houseboys were captivated by the refined and snobbery elegance of their master’s attire.
These boys spurned the secondhand clothes of their masters and started buying this attire in large quantity. They ended up spending their meager wages on these extravagant attires from Paris.
They used their connections and friendships in France to buy this attire. Today, the women are not doing badly with their choice of attire. Despite the turmoil in the country, the Sapeuses would go the extra miles to get their exuberant flamboyance flying.
They have featured in some international songs and movies. The next time you visit Congo, take your time, and enjoy the flair these women cause on the streets. They are some of the popular tourist attractions if you want something to fascinate your fashion sense.
What do you think of this set of people? Even in the midst of their woes, they find ways to make themselves happy.