Les sapeurs : The Congolese costume and culture


Commonly, each country has a sense of style that identifies them or rather makes them stand out from other countries.

When travelling around the African continent, you will find similarities within our African diversity, but there is always a way to tell us apart. Our creativity has become our identity, how we choose to express ourselves through arts is how we get recognised around the globe.


The S.A.P.E. of its acronym: the “Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant People”.

In the Middle Ages, during the meeting between the Portuguese and the Kongo people, the Portuguese discovered a well-organised state. The Kongo people had acquired a certain mastery of the weaving trade which was booming. Thanks to their creativity, the Kongo people even managed to develop a textile industry whose quality of fabrics rivaled those of Europeans.

Thus, originally, we weren’t talking about the S.A.P.E. but rather the “bunkete” which means cleanliness. This movement was amplified with the “boys” who were servants in the service of a European in the colonial or ex-colonial countries of black Africa. These boys, who were sometimes guardians or gardeners, inherited their master’s clothes. This is how they could dress ostentatiously in those days. This has given rise to several fashions such as the bombacho with its oversized fashion. The custom of La Sape dates back to the 1920s. It is  often mistakenly confused with Sapology, S.A.P.E. has its own definition.


At that time, many considered white men to be superior, due to their sophistication and elegance, and many Congolese wanted to emulate them.What was considered disturbing was that the first sappers used this protest movement because the S.A.P.E. was the only weapon they had to claim certain rights. In 1922, Grenard André Matsoua was the first Congolese to return from Paris dressed as a true Frenchman. His arrival aroused great admiration among his compatriots; he became the first Grand Sapeur and is known as the precursor of the Congolese S.A.P.E.  

La S.A.P.E. has always had an impact at the political level. It was banned for a long time by the former President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu through his campaign of authenticity. The latter had banned the wearing of the costume and the caravan and had imposed the wearing of the uniform also called the “abacos”, which is a word derived from the pronunciation of French “down the costume”. Its aim was to rid the country of the lingering vestiges of colonialism and the continued influence of Western culture and to create a more centralised and singular national identity. The policy began to decline in the late 1970s and was mostly abandoned in 1990.


A certain youth, often represented by artists such as singers or comedians, began to protest with sartorial customs and to adhere to another way of dressing other than by wearing abacos. They therefore wore the suit and tie to restore value to their art.

This is how some musicians such as Papa Wemba have succeeded in democratising the S.A.P.E. movement. In Kinshasa, Papa Wemba is known as the “King of the Sap” because in Kinshasa, he was the first main actor to disseminate it on a large scale. He made the movement emerge beyond Africa, notably by importing it into the West and into Europe. Through its orchestra, by merging and performing with other great artists like Peter Gabriel, Rumba has become more democratic. And those who said “Rumba” said “Papa Wemba” and those who said “Papa Wemba” also said “S.A.P.E.”

This custom has become famous in both cities (Kinshasa and Brazzaville) and has continuously given Congo the recognition it deserves after a difficult period of not being recognised by tourists, boosting sustainable tourism in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Republic of Congo.

La S.A.P.E. has made incredible waves in the fashion industry. She is known as the male subcultural fashion sense emerging from the city of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. This fashion sense represents the gentlemen who spend their money and time looking stylish and modern. For them it has become a lifestyle more than just a fashion dilemma. Today, the custom and culture of La Sape has broadened to include women and children.

The Congolese fashion wear, amongst other reasons, such as the presence of the rich minerals in these two neighboring countries, has been the key factor in the country’s economic development. Since tourism is relatively rising in Congo, these two countries have a common national strategy which is hope for a future where sustainable tourism may open pathways for the creation of middle-income jobs in rural and urban areas with a national tourism plan that involves programs for fashion and arts. As much as this custom was once forbidden in the DRC, it has massively grown to benefit the country and got the exposure to spread across Africa and the UK, showing the amazing Congolese talent.

As a committed and responsible travel agent, Timuntu Travel salutes this remarkable ‘’S.A.P.E.’’ fashion talent and recommends that you make a stopover in the DRC or Republic of Congo to experience an amazing one on one encounter with the different lovers of ‘’La S.A.P.E. ’’.

To discover the Congolese local culture and immerse yourself in this unique atmosphere, join on of our sustainable tours in Kinshasa or Brazzaville and contact us to book your place : contact@timuntutravel.com.

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(6) Comments

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