Meet the sapeuses of Congo-Brazzaville

Two women and a young boy wearing sharply tailored suits walk along a dirt road

Two sapeuses and a young sapeur (middle) in the streets of Brazzaville

Al Jazeera just published a fantastic photo essay about the female sapeurs of Congo-Brazzaville.  The Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) is a long-runningaesthetic and social movement which privileges extreme elegance in the face of poverty.  Historically, it’s mostly been practiced by men, but this essay highlights the sharp style of the sapeuses as well.

A woman in a suit and dark sunglasses with a traditionally carved wooden pipe in her mouth

Celmantine inherited this pipe from her father, who was also a sapeur

Le Journal International provides more context for the movement’s social appeal:

Although there has been a long history of dandies in the Congo following the slave trade and French and Belgian rule, the social movement as we know it today was revived in the 1970s by musician Papa Wemba, in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He promoted la Sape culture, placing a heavy emphasis on the smart dress of all Congolese men, regardless of their social differences.
An ethos centred around respect, peace, integrity and honour accompanies the wardrobe of la Sape. This holds that a Sapeur has to be non-violent, well mannered and an inspiration through their attitude and behaviour. Wemba used this with a political motive. It gave birth to a wave of popular resistance to President Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime of “authenticity”, which prescribed a condemnation of symbolic ties with the coloniser and a return to traditionalism, following the recently regained independence. Wemba made use of la Sape’s culture of extravagant dress to challenge the strict dress codes which outlawed European and Western styles, imposed by the government.
A woman in a suit poses next to a large sign for Prisca Coiffure, with another woman sitting in a chair braiding a girl's hair in front of the sign
Le sape extends to hairstyles as well

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