La Sape as a Political Movement: A Historical Context

By HANNA BAJWA

La Sape is an abbreviation of Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, translating to Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People. It is a social movement of well-dressed men that began in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo (ROC). More precisely, in the two capitals, Brazzaville and Kinshasa which are divided by the Congo River. The River was used as a demarcation line in the era of colonial expansion - which is the origin of the movement. Since then, La Sape has grown into a social trend that has embraced the colonizer’s style and fashion.


In Power and Politics of Dress in Africa, published in 2007, Gisele Aris points out that clothing was particularly important during the colonial domination as it visualised the relation between the colonizer and the colonized. The Belgians and the French, giving European clothing to Africans, were attempting to domesticate them through fashion. Instead of passively accepting European fashion, the Congolese answered to this sort of domination actively, reinterpreting it and translating subjection into emancipation.


The two Congos have been contended between many rulers. Following the Berlin Conference in 1885, the Congo Free State (now DRC) was assigned to Belgium while the opposite territory separated from DRC by the River became a French Protectorate. André Matswa was a Congolese activist from Brazzaville who advocated for political emancipation and equal rights for all citizens of the French Congo. Living in Paris in the 1920s, Mastwa worked closely with black activists from the Caribbean, the US, other African countries, as well as with liberal Europeans. In contrast to the savagery notions associated with African nakedness, European clothing was considered ‘civilizing,’ and Matswa’s fashionable Parisian attire was one of the earliest examples in the Congo of an African following European fashion while openly resisting colonial rule.


Both nations gained independence in 1960 yet faced rocky histories. DRC adopted a pro-soviet policy, and in 1979 Denis Sassou Nguesso took power, becoming the President of the country. Sassou Nguesso has been governing the country for more than 30 years and according to the Constitution drafted in 2002, he has unlimited powers. After ROC’s independence, Patrice Lumumba became the head of the government; however, deposed and executed one year later.


After years of massacres and crisis, in 1965, Mobutu Sese Seko became Prime Minister and created the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution. Congo then evolved into a dictatorship, and Mobutu’s frightening regime, supported by the CIA, lasted more than 30 years. Further, in 1971, Mobutu renamed the country once more and started a rigorous campaign, named Authenticité, aiming to restore African values and culture that were lost during the colonialism. Its objective was to build a new and pure Congolese identity through language, symbols, and universal culture. The cities were given new names in African and the changes were made in the personal names of the Zairians, to whom it was prohibited to baptise the new-borns with non-African names. They were not even allowed to wear European clothing, and the suits were banned.


In reaction to these restrictive measures, the rumba musician Papa Wemba popularised La Sape in the early 1970s, undercutting Mobutu’s attempts to homogenise Congolese culture by implementing a ban on suits. By using clothing and musical lyrics, Wemba encouraged Africans to reject the Western gaze as a way of physically asserting their humanity.


Although the movement has gained increased attention from international media, the future of the movement is not very clear. It is supposed that the movement will continue if it is integrated within the two Congos' political and economic systems through wider recognition of its cultural and historical significance. Sapeurs in Brazzaville and Kinshasa are local celebrities, a non-violent yet political statement directed towards the former colonisers in the West. Modern-day La Sape uses clothing to create a diverse range of identities, bearing similarities to other post-independence fashion movements in Africa (i.e., in Accra and Southern Uganda). Representations of men in flamboyant clothing have made consistent appearances in Congolese visual culture, beginning in the pre-colonial period, throughout Belgian colonialism, and gaining force in the post-independence era. Sapeurs mobilise an intergenerational grassroots approach to identity that provides not only an escape from the constraints of everyday life and recent history in the Congo but also produces alternative ways of being. As Maxime Pivot, crowned as the Congo's best-dressed man says, "When you dress up, you really are the best."


Image: Flickr (david son)

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