The youth of Africa today are positioned in an intermingling of cultural identities and there is a need to find a contemporary style that merges those identities. Black dandyism inspired by “Les Sapeurs” of Central Africa has helped curate an aesthetic that is well-groomed, refined yet inclusive of African sensibilities.
Black Dandyism was brought to us by the Sapeurs, which stands for “Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes” (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People); a subculture well known within the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This curious society of gentlemen turned the art of dressing into a cultural statement and did it with literal style. The Sapeurs style is all decadence, flamboyant colour, polished tailoring and impeccable attention to detail. They explore staples not much used in men’s fashion, like powder and blush colours and jaunty evening silk scarves.
a single pair of trousers can sell for as much as $300, and imitations are not tolerated.
The distinct style is a merging of cultures brought about by black resistance and ingenuity. During colonialism in the 19th century, servants often got paid by their wealthy employers in clothing instead of money, so they began to embrace a European dress style as a means of combating colonial superiority.
But instead of accepting the dress style as is was, Sapeurs exaggerated it into a high-fashion style with a distinctly African flair.
Sapeurism has since evolved into a fully-fledged style tribe that arguably spurred the Black Dandy movement which in turn brought about the rise of gender-fluid fashion on the continent.
“Before bling and ghetto fabulous, before the dawn of the metrosexual, Congolese men have been pushing the limits of outlandish fashion and heterosexual male vanity, roaming the streets like walking advertisements for the world’s top labels. These fashionistas were donning fur coats and gaudy jewels as early as the 1970s.” details the Los Angeles Times
However, buying such style isn’t cheap; a single pair of trousers can sell for as much as $300, and imitations are not tolerated. The average national income per capita in Congo-Brazzaville is an estimated $3400, which puts buying $1,300 pair of crocodile shoes or $3000 designers’ suits in perspective.
Despite the expense, the style has endured from generation to generation as a type of social activism and life philosophy with a code of conduct to which they must abide.
“The Sapeur is a model of gentlemanly behaviour and mannerisms; it’s also the language he uses, the way he walks,” Guinness campaign director and filmmaker Hector Mediavilla told the Telegraph newspaper when the company released a Sapeur inspired Ad in 2014. “How you treat people is very important. For a man to be a Sapeur he must be gentle, he must not be aggressive, he must be against war, he must be calm tempered.”
Les Sapeurs have inspired a wide range of brands and celebrities including Solange Knowles who showcased the style in her “Losing You” video.
The Modern Sapeur
Sapeurism has become a cultural identity that now extends to women. Ironically the cult-like fashion movement that helped propel gender-fluid fashion in Africa remained closed to women in its country of birth for 90 years. This changed when the country’s association of Sapeurs launched its first-ever recruitment drive targeting women in 2010.
The hindrance had been cultural as the male Sapeurs felt their iconic look was not gender-appropriate for women who are typically encouraged to wear African print dresses and skirts. But women persisted and all female groups are now fairly common. In the true spirit of Sapeurism, the women have added unique touches to the style by adding raffia, a local and traditional material.
These pioneer female Sapeurs are inspiring other women in their country to defy society’s expectations by expressing themselves in a style reserved for men.