Style is everything!
If you are familiar with fashion especially old school fashion, you might have heard of the fascinating style of the La Sape who imitated their Belgian and French colonizers in style and dress. This trend has continued to the modern era, where a group of Congolese Africans called the Bakongo Dandies adore looking fly, despite financial troubles. These men are treated like celebrities and are even paid to charm their way into the hearts of guests at events like weddings and burials.
If you look past the fact that the colonized often mimicked their colonizers in the way they spoke and in their manners, you must admit the way they reimagined the fashion of their colonizers and made it a way of life is unique. Not every colonized person took on the style of the colonizers, but for those that did, they have turned it into a trend that fashion lovers are in love with.
In Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, one of the significant characters Lakunle, embraced the culture of the colonizers– particularly their fashion– with open arms. However the difference between Lakunle in Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel and the Congolese Bakongo dandies is these dandies dress for more revolutionary reasons, while one could argue that the character of Lakunle is simply “dressing as the oppressor”.
Who is a dandy, and what is the history of La Sape in Congolese fashion?
The dictionary defines a dandy as a man whose primary concern is looking stylish and fashionable. La Sape, on the other hand, is a trend that is traced back to colonialism in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo Brazzaville where the colonized were gifted with western clothes by their colonizers. Whenever they were paid they rushed off to purchase outfits that made them look like their colonizers, made them look different from others and gain respect in their community. The Dandies of the Bakongos are Congolese gentlemen who are very stylish and take their fashion to be at the top of their priorities.
La Sape, which, as stated earlier, is traced to colonialism in the Congo, is a decidedly charming fashion trend that is not going anywhere soon. It became very recognized after the popular Papa Wemba (la Pape de la sape) took numerous trips to Paris and became obsessed with French fashion, thereby unofficially naming this trend.
Despite being old school, the look of the Sapeur has warmed its way into the hearts of modern fashion enthusiasts. These gentlemen see their basic needs of life as looking elegant and wearing expensive designer clothes. They could easily spend the entirety of their money shopping for designer clothing and go hungry because looking good fills them with such immense pride.
It is important to note that the Dandy tribe of Congo ascribe to the belief that you should dress the way you would love people to address you. They believe that dressing gives an impression on how they want to be seen or judged. Their fashion style is a way of protest and defying the inferiority complex leveled on them by their colonizers. Amid the slums and poverty they face; dressing in elegantly tailored designer suits and shoes is all they need to be happy in life.
The unwritten rule of dandyism includes the right color combination in regards to ones outfit, attention to detail, your cigar or pipe (which makes a statement), pulling your socks up to a certain height, having good manners, living peaceably with others, and being morally upright. They believe in the saying ‘let us drop the weapons and let us work and dress elegantly,’ and they live entirely by it. Sapeurs mind their businesses, they do the most menial jobs, they party together, show up at events, dress elegantly, and they remember their activity. A true Sapeur doesn’t believe in doing drugs as drugs do not define a gentleman. And as gentlemen they hold the gentlemen lifestyle in high regard.
While many people criticize them for not setting their priorities straight, it is very refreshing to note that more than their outfits, the Bakongo dandies have functional traits which have helped them gain attention. For instance, before they light their cigar, which is a significant symbol of the La Sape, they ask the person next to them if they are permitted. Also, they hold good moral ethics; they are gentle, kind, and civil. Underneath their vanity lies an active moral code which emphasize good personal cleanliness and the importance of dressing smartly regardless of the kind of society you find yourself in. Bakongo dandies consider their lifestyle as pure art. They have refused to let the society they live in define the way they dress. Even if they live in slums they show up to every scene dripping with class and elegance.
Many Bakongos will try to do anything–even if it is illegal–to get the money to afford the luxurious Sapeur lifestyle, which is famous for dressing nicely. According to many anecdotal reports, Sapeurs will buy an expensive outfit from an Italian or French designer rather than spend the money on their family or even their bills. Many older men who engaged in the sapeur lifestyle while they were younger have expressed regrets of falling victim to this opulent lifestyle. They feel they have set a bad example for the younger generation who work and steal so they can afford designer clothing.
Whether you knew it before Congolese dandies have set a trend in fashion. Their color combination, attention to details, composure and the fact that they do not let their environment stop them from doing what they love is a game changer. They have inspired new fashion trends as there is a juxtaposition of style and self-expression. They love art, and the way they express their self is by being fashionable and unique. The People Are Fly!