Tuesday, 1 April 2014

"It's not the cost of the suit that counts, but the worth of the man inside it."

The story of Les Sapeurs, or The Dandies of The Congo.

A dandy is a man who places extreme importance on physical appearance and refined language. It is very possible that dandies have existed for as long as time itself. According to Charles Baudelaire, 19th century French poet and dandy himself, a dandy can also be described as someone who elevates aesthetics to a religion.

In the late 18th and early 19th century Britain, being a dandy was not only about looking good but also about men from the middle classes being self-made and striving to emulate an aristocratic lifestyle. The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of literature’s greatest dandies; famous historical dandies include Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron.

These days the practice of dandyism also includes a nostalgic longing for ideals such as that of the perfect gentleman. The dandy almost always requires an audience and is admired for his style and impeccable manners by the general public.

The special relationship between black men and dandyism arose with slavery in Europe. In early 18th century, masters who wanted their slaves to reflect their social stature imposed dandified costumes on black servants, effectively turning them into ‘luxury slaves’. It is hinted at in the recent movie ’12 years a Slave’. And as black slaves gained more liberty, they took control of the image by customising their dandy uniforms and thereby creating a unique style. They transformed from black men in dandy clothing to dandies who were black.

Though today the most famous black dandies are Americans like Andre 3000, black dandyism can also be found in other parts of the world. In particular the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there currently exists a subculture of elegant gentlemen who spend every dime on looking good and who live under strict moral codes.

Which brings us neatly to the modern day, and more specifically to the recent Guinness TV advert that focuses on some superbly dressed Congolese men. The Guinness ad follows these hard working men as they shed their field clothes and transform themselves into polished, hat-wearing, cane-wielding style moguls - because, as the narrator says, "in life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are."

All of the men featured in the advert are members of the Congolese Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant Persons (SAPE) - sapeurs, as they are known. The main idea for the ad was to be true to the sapeur look and not embellish or over state it. And there are clear rules. Sapeurs never wear more than three colours at once (or four, including white). In the Guinness ad, featuring men from Brazzaville, black and grey clothes were kept to a minimum – and the irony, as a Guinness ad, is rich!

The advertising agency has said that they were "blown away" by the experience of working with these men and celebrating their look. Hassan Salvador, seen in the ad sporting jaunty Lennon-style dark glasses, says he earns $1,000 (£610) a month working as a warehouse manager, and about 20% of that goes on his clothes and shoes. Feron Ngouabi - who can be glimpsed wearing a kilt and tam-o-shanter - spends all of his earnings as a fireman on clothes, he says. Fortunately he owns two taxis, which bring in extra cash.

But the point is not lost. "They may not be wealthy," he says, "but they are wealthy in spirit".

The Guiness advert

Short documentary about Les Sapeurs

All images found on Google. No offense or copyright infringement intended. Images can be removed if requested by originator.

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