La Sape (also known as The Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant People) is a subculture centered on the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of Congo respectively. The name comes from the French slang word sape, which means “clothes” or “dressed up.” La Sape aims to show elegance and style within fashion, similar to predecessors before. People who participate in the movement are called sapeurs.

Congolese people are known for taking pride in their appearance, yet La Sape takes the art of looking good to the next level. Papa Wemba, the famously dapper Congolese rumba singer credited with popularizing the sapeur look, said his inspiration came from his parents, who in the 1960s were “always well put together, always looking very smart.”

Sapeur families are treated like celebrities. They bring hope and joie de vivre to communities that have been ravaged by years of violence and conflict. Spending money on ornate pipes and silk socks might seem frivolous in a country like the DRC, where more than 70% of the population live in poverty, but La Sape aims to do more than help people forget their troubles. It has become a subtle form of social activism — a way of turning the tables on power and rebelling against the economic conditions they live in.

The movement can be traced back to the Congolese resicstance of the 1920s, when young men sought to adopt and imitate French and Belgian clothes as a way of combating colonial superiority. Congolese houseboys spurned their masters’ second-hand clothes and became defiant consumers, spending their meager monthly wages to acquire the latest extravagant fashions from Paris.

In countries torn apart by colonialism, corruption, civil war and poverty, sapeurs have found that shared sartorial ambitions — and their gentlemanly, civil code of conduct — can help to heal the infighting. True Sapologie is about more than expensive labels: the true art lies in a sapeur’s ability to put together an elegant look unique to their personality.

Though the tradition is usually passed down through the male line, many Congolese women have recently begun donning designer suits and becoming sapeuses. By challenging Congolese patriarchal society in this way, they are returning to La Sape’s origins by reversing the power dynamic. La Sape is a movement that is constantly evolving, as disenfranchised youths use fashion as a way of navigating their nations’ journeys from developing countries into a more hopeful cosmopolitan future.

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