The Congo Dandies: Living in Poverty and Spending A Fortune to look like a Million Dollars

Credit: RTD

I can guarantee you that 5 minutes into Congo Dandies, you will be either fascinated, stunned or disgusted. Why? The answer depends on which state of mind you are left with.

I am new to documentary scene (Congo Dandies is the 5th documentary I recall ever watching) and I have not found them to be that interesting, but the sheer contrast between the ‘Sapeur’ and his environment is as captivating as it gets.

How can you justify buying a shoes that costs as much as a landed property, while you live in a shanty?

This is one of the possible questions that may pop up while you view this 25 minute documentary.

Credit: RTD

What and who is a Sapeur?

Sapeur translates to ‘Sapper’, who is a soldier who is responsible for building, and repairing roads and bridges, alying and clearing of mines.

Weird huh? What does a military engineer (of sorts) have to do with fashion?

The answer lies in the aftermath of World War 2, where soldiers who had fought in France brought back home much more than war stories. They had come back with a new sense of style, which was reminiscent of the myth of the Parisian elegance introduced at the beginning of the 20th century when the French arrived in Congo (NPR).

The other question is WHY??? Why would anyone want to become a Sapeur?

It was/is trendy. The returning military men, who later became Sapeurs, somehow were able to influence their community with the obvious change (and improvement) in their sense of style. In this case, Street Style, which can inspire a trend because it is an everyday look that can be seen on the streets. And overtime it leaves an impact on people who see them often. Thus, it catches on and … Voila! It is trendy (lovetoknow).

Credit: RTD

But there is a catch, it is also costly.

The Republic of Congo, independent from France in 1960, has suffered from the resource curse (where there is an abundance of natural resources but less economic development and growth). The poverty rate in the country is quite high, ranking at 176 of the 187 countries in the 2015 United Nations Human Development Index, which makes it one of the poorest countries in the world (World Bank).

While it is easy to condemn these men for their choices, they are artists. Their art is in their clothing, which is bright, and (sometimes) beautiful. A Sapeur or two walking around in poor neighbourhoods translates into walking art pieces, with mannerisms and elegance (in some cases) that can be seen as bright sparks in a rather depressing backdrop.

Congo Dandyism centers on style, colour composition and attitude, and these factors are just as important as brand (Culture Trip). The attitude can be sourced in La Sape, Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People).

When you see a Sapeur, you get a faint sense of pacifism, because he is interested in looking good, because it feels good. Their sense of style and being is much like the Italian ‘sprezzatura’, whose effortless approach to style and fashion can be a delight to watch or (at least) is a subject of fascination.

I saved up to buy [these shoes]. It took me almost two years. If I hadn’t bought this pair, I’d have bought a plot of land.” – Maxime Pivot

By the good folks at RT Documentaries, here is The Congo Dandies

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