Guinness Short Documentary on the Sapeurs

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La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, known as La Sape (adherents sapeurs) is a Congolese sartorial subculture.

It emerged as an expression of civil disobedience during the repressive regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. In the 1960s and 1970s, the fiercely Africanist self-styled “Father of the Nation” promoted authenticité as an official state ideology of Zaire to foster a sense of national identity at the expense of foreign and tribal culture:

Authenticité has made us discover our personality by reaching into the depths of our past for the rich cultural heritage left to us by our ancestors. We have no intention of blindly returning to all ancestral customs; rather. We would like to choose those that adapt themselves well to modern life, those that encourage progress, and those that create a way of life and thought that are essentially ours.

Western styles of attire – most notably the suit, shirt, and tie – were accordingly proscribed to symbolise the break with the country’s colonial past, and men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost (derived from the French à bas le costume, or “down with the suit”). On April 24, 1990, facing mounting internal demands for liberalisation and international isolation following the end of the Cold War, Mobutu declared the Third Republic, the ostensible reforms of which included multi-party democracy, the freedom to use traditional forms of address (such as monsieur and madame) and the freedom to wear a suit and tie. This prompted an unprecedented mass adoptions of their threadbare but elaborate clothes of the 1960s by the Congolese people, and in response beatings by the henchmen of the regime of anyone caught wearing a suit. The government of the Republic of the Congo were similarly hostile to the subculture, but later relaxed their attitude towards the sapeurs, with President Denis Sassou Nguesso regularly eschewing military fatigues for a Yves Saint Laurent suit on trips abroad.

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