Delightful or Decadent?: Perceptions of Sapeuses and Sapeurs in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
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Delightful or Decadent?: Perceptions of Sapeuses and Sapeurs in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo


La Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Élégantes (The Society of Ambiance Makers and Elegant Persons, or La SAPE) is a Congolese fashion subculture generally associated with Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Due to academic and popular media presentations that predominantly focus on Brazzaville, its members, referred to as sapeuses (for women) and sapeurs (for men), have a notorious reputation for their obsession with dressing only in designer-labeled clothing, shoes, and accessories, and for their ostentatious performances in public spaces. While local residents of Kinshasa largely look down upon La SAPE because they see sapeuses and sapeurs’ pursuit of high fashion as foolish, international media often portrays La SAPE in a favorable light. By examining a varied visual archive of fashion practices, performances, photographs, and videos, as well as interviews with Kinshasa-based members of La SAPE and local curators and artists who collaborate with them, I evaluate local and international perceptions of La SAPE reflected in academic and media presentations alongside the realities of its Kinshasa-based members. Although La SAPE has the veneer of exclusivity, elitism, and hedonism, I argue that Kinshasa-based members have created an inclusive community and have utilized its potential to be an avenue for social activism. The different types of social activism are realized in varied ways: by calling attention to Congolese history and languages, and by reinvigorating Congolese cultural practices through the creation of new fashion; by empowering women to find work opportunities through performance; and by enabling members of La SAPE to contribute to the local and international art scene through collaborative projects with professional artists.

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