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Leisure • Culture

What We Might Learn From The Dandies of The Congo

In most places on earth, it would be considered highly bizarre to meet a goat herder, living at the end of a mud track, always dressed in a pristine three-piece ensemble from Chanel with a silk tie from Hermès and a pair of loafers from Fendi. And even more so to find that this is not an individual eccentric but a participant in a widespread social movement amongst the very modestly off that stresses the supreme importance of fine tailoring and designer labels from European fashion houses. 

Maxime Pivot Mabanza, 43-year-old teacher of La Sape and sapeur for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2017. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

However, the gloriously titled Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (whose adherents are known as Sapeurs, after their society’s initial letters) has been flourishing in The Republic of the Congo and the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo since the 1960s – and now numbers hundreds of thousands of adherents who participate in animated online forums and regularly meet in person to exchange notes on, and celebrate, their wardrobes. To belong to the Sapeurs is to undertake an enormous commitment, almost akin to joining a religion: to invest in the most beautiful shirts, ties, blazers, dresses available and to wear these with pride as often as possible, both on special occasions and in the modest moments of life; to join – as it were – a religion of beauty.

Yamea Bansimba Jean Claude, 58-year-old bricklayer and sapeur for 50 years, in Brazzaville, 2017. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

In a country where the average monthly income is the minimum day’s pay elsewhere, buying a fine shirt or a top-quality waistcoat might take years of saving and will mean going without a bicycle or investing in extra livestock. Prized items are passed down the generations; a taxi driver may have inherited her Chanel jacket from her grandmother, a market trader’s most valuable possession might be a pair of velvet trousers from Dior. 

To outsiders it can feel like an unsettling attitude. Why not try to build a business, spend on education, or just wear things better adapted to working conditions in an equatorial climate? Why fall for the lure of frippery?

Yet what is striking is the sense of dignity, purpose and seriousness that attends membership of the Sapeurs: this is a creed no less demanding or intellectually layered than Buddhism (with which it shares a striking number of themes in relation to time, friendship and the claims of the present). One is dressed not in order to be practical for the long-term, but in order to look awe-inspiringly beautiful today. One dresses in order to brighten one’s surroundings and gladden one’s friends and colleagues. The move symbolises a profound refusal to be defined by one’s job or by income – or to participate in the normal calculations of so-called prudent planning for the decades ahead. Few places on earth are more forceful than Equatorial Africa in bringing home a message which we have a hard time holding on to but which, well deployed, contains a necessary piece of wisdom: that no one has guaranteed us a long life, that being constantly ‘sensible’ about the future is in its own way a folly, that we must balance a concern for three decades hence with the claims of now and that to deny the splendour of today in the name of possible tomorrows may become a distinct form of ingratitude and, in a way, deep recklessness.

The Sapeurs have accepted that life will always be hopelessly imperfect and circumscribed. But, via an exquisite shirt or blazer, they are making a strategic stand: they may not have social status – but they will enjoy the sheen of their clothes – and enjoy these right now, more than we generally manage to enjoy anything. The members of this society embrace a highly modest but pointedly defiant attitude: we won’t change the world, but we won’t let it crush us either; amongst the brutal, let us be refined; when society is mad, we’ll polish our shoes. The purpose of our lives will be played out in tiny, intimate – and superbly tailored – aesthetic victories over meanness, mundanity and joylessness.

Israell Mbona, 5-year-old school student and sapeur for 3 years, in Kinshasa, 2019. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

Ultimately, the wisdom of the Sapeurs’ attitude constitutes a reproof to our overly-dutiful and emotionally miserly natures. In our far more privileged realms, we suffer from trying to please others more than we actually please ourselves; we are too adept at deferring available happiness; we keep our own loveliness hidden; we become absurd through mistaken ideas of seriousness. We are subliminally hedged in by what we suppose society expects of us, not only now but for a presumed eternity. The community of Personnes Élégantes may look as if it could have relevance only within a very narrow context; in fact, it can be an inspiration more globally, for we all have our versions of an Hermès tie or Chanel suit (it might be a hobby, an object, a friend, a secret love or a mission) that we have not looked at, dared to invest in or been courageous enough to enjoy – because we have falsely presumed that we might have been granted eternal life. 

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