Sapeurs of the Congo
I subscribe to the philosophy of ‘this can be beautiful’, hence my ears perked up when I started learning more about the Sapeurs of the Congo. This is a group of Congolese men who identify as part of the Society of Ambience-Makers and Elegant people. Aesthetics are an intricate part of the life we live….sometimes to a fault, when they become more important that the actual substance. Nevertheless, aesthetics can aid in creating identity or at least communicating that identity to the world.
“The Sapeurs are a band of men who turn the art of dressing into a cultural statement, and abide by a code befitting of the gentlemanly clothes they don so resplendently each morning.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/fashion-and-style/10564648/Meet-the-dandies-of-Brazzaville.html)
Although the question of what a Sapeur is and isn’t is generally understood, a lingering question is the role this construct plays in culture and society. Arguments range from seeing Sapeurs as a worthwhile political and social movement. One rising above the social constraints by appropriating dandyism and the master’s style & mannerism as throwback to colonial patterns. In the mean time, others see it simply as an obsession with fashion and the outside shell. I really don’t think this has to be a dichotomy, I see incredible value in finding quirky and interesting ways for identity creation and self expression. I’m all about that.
This raises questions of dandyism in relation to notions of "what is cool". We have somewhat an obsession with the global culture of ‘cool’. Believe it or not many scholarly articles have been written on this notion of coolness. I mean, these are not questions that are going to change the world or save us from ourselves.......but they are interesting nonetheless.
Some trace the notion of ‘cool’ all the way back to the days of slavery. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein of 'Philosophy Now' writes;
The aesthetics of cool developed mainly as a behavioral attitude practiced by black men in the United States at the time of slavery. Slavery made necessary the cultivation of special defense mechanisms which employed emotional detachment and irony. A cool attitude helped slaves and former slaves to cope with exploitation or simply made it possible to walk the streets at night. During slavery, and long afterwards, overt aggression by blacks was punishable by death. Provocation had to remain relatively inoffensive, and any level of serious intent had to be disguised or suppressed. So cool represents a paradoxical fusion of submission and subversion. It’s a classic case of resistance to authority through creativity and innovation.
This is, in many ways, perverted if you think about it. And the question of effectiveness of these strategies obviously remains. Don't even get me started on the issue of completely ignoring women's role in the creation and advancement of culture and counter-culture. But that’s a debate for another day.
It’s quite paradoxical really because coolness means control, however the subject who obsesses and controls everything cannot be seen as cool. It’s the perfect balance between total control and total detachment. Like it has been said many times; the aesthetics of cool are complex and somewhat mysterious, you can’t define it but you know it when you see it.