Sunday, March 15, 2009

Congo's well-dressed

In Congo, there's a movement called SAPE or La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (the Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance). According to this article, followers of SAPE or sapeurs "wear $10,000 jackets and $500 shoes," only there's one problem: they live in and amidst poverty.

In an interview with BBC, director-producers Cosima Spender and George Amponsah, who made a documentary on the subject, explain the symbolism of high fashion for the sapeur:
George: It was really one way of coping with a society that had broken down. For a young person growing up at that time, there wasn't much to grasp hold of to help you feel better about yourself. Politics was out, so you found a lot of cargo cult religions in the Congo. The Sape is essentially one of these. The distinctive look of the sapeurs was also a rebellion against one of Mobutu's dictatorial decrees, which was that everyone was expected to dress in a very traditional, standard African costume - the abacost.

Cosima: The sapeurs in Paris and Brussels are using these European status symbols not to integrate into European society but to 'be someone' back home in the Congo. This separates them from European fashionistas. They aren't so much concerned with proving anything to the outside world but rather to one another, among their own community. These people have grown up with no kind of social structure to rely on. The Sape is a mini-state providing its own social strata: president, ministers, acolytes and so on.

This would make me look at well-dressed persons a bit more differently: their designer clothes, shoes and handbags may actually be a call for help.

Photos by Hector Mediavilla. Click to view his other breathtaking photos.

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