Since childhood, Fernand Okouo has been a fashion enthusiast, but for years her love remained restricted to selling and buying vintage clothing at markets in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo. The country’s famed, cultlike sapeurism fashion, rooted in its French colonial history, had remained closed to women for 90 years. Then, in 2015, Okouo heard about a sapeur group that was recruiting women. She signed up. Today, the 49-year-old is an award-winning sapeur, her acceptance within the community an example of a social transformation changing the face of the country’s best-known fashion style.
Sapeurism began in the early 1920s when French colonial masters would give their used clothes to Congolese domestic workers as compensation for their work. The workers styled the clothes their own way and turned the streets of Brazzaville into a runway show. There was an element of rebellion too, say experts, with members of a Black community showing that they could use the same clothes as their Western colonizers to dress more stylishly than them. The trend became known as “La Sape” — French for “the dandy” — and began attracting global attention.
Joining this group has allowed me to really be who I want to be regardless of my gender.
Fernand Okouo, female sapeur
But in the conservative West African nation, women were barred from publicly adopting the style statement, expected instead to dress in traditional African prints and fabrics instead of jeans, trousers and skirts. Now, growing demands and pressure from women in the country — also known as Congo-Brazzaville to distinguish it from the much larger Democratic Republic of the Congo — are forcing the male-dominated movement to open up. These groups also recognize the need to expand to survive and grow.
The country’s association of sapeurs launched its first-ever recruitment drive targeting women in 2010. At least 75 women have joined through those drives. In addition, women have formed their own sapeur groups — the pioneer among them, known by the acronym ASAF, now has an estimated 100 members. It started in 2010. And previously all-men groups are welcoming female sapeurs. Among them is the Association la Dynamic des Sapeur Court de Grands in the neighborhood of Mikalou, led by popular sapeur Bertrand — who goes by a single name — which has, starting in 2015, included at least 15 women sapeurs and even four child sapeurs. It’s Bertrand’s group that Okouo has joined.
“Joining this group has allowed me to really be who I want to be regardless of my gender,” says Okouo, now a winner of Brazzaville’s top competition for female sapeurs, emerging as the best-dressed among them.
The sapeur-style movement spread from the Republic of the Congo to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the mid-20th century, where, in the 1970s, it blossomed in Kinshasa as a form of challenge to then President Mobutu Sese Seko’s attempts at demonizing all things Western. The movement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo included women — although in a minority — as members from its early years.
By contrast, the opening up of the sapeur movement to women in the Republic of the Congo is still nascent, and progress is slow. Many of the sapeur groups that have tried to allow women to join them have found women themselves, attuned by decades of cultural expectations, hesitant to do so. One of the reasons why ASAF is vital, says Bertrand, is because many women feel more secure joining groups that are all-female. But even getting as far as convincing men to open up the movement to women is transformative, he says.
The first signs of an impending shift emerged in 2005, when, after receiving multiple petitions from women, Hamed Yala, a popular sapeur, suggested to other groups that they consider letting in women. But male groups resisted, arguing that it was inappropriate for women to express themselves the way that men do.
That didn’t stop women from demanding to be let in, and in 2010, Yala announced that he would lead the formation of the ASAF as an all-women’s group. For male groups, that left two options — to resist ASAF, or to treat the growing demand from female sapeurs as an opportunity to expand its audience. Nine decades after the start of the movement, they chose the latter option.
“The women and children joining this fashion trend are defying all odds,” says Bertrand. “That is a major change not just within the sapeur community but also within Congolese society.”
Though Western clothing dominates sapeurism, Congolese women try to include local touches by using, for instance, raffia, a local and traditional material. Okouo wore an outfit made of raffia when she won the best-dressed competition.
Today, gender tensions within the sapeur movement are lower than ever, says Colette Managa, a member of ASAF. But that doesn’t mean broader challenges that women in the country face have disappeared, cautions Okouo. “Congolese society does not give women enough space to fully express themselves,” she says.
The difference, though, is that while the sapeur movement’s attitude toward women used to be no different from society’s, that continues to change. “It is good to see so many Congolese women beginning to step outside their comfort zone,” says Okouo.
A lot remains to be done. At a personal level, Okouo says, sapeurism has helped her develop her identity. Today, her style is just as elegant and sophisticated as that of male sapeurs around Brazzaville. She wears clothes as expensive as $4,000 at times, from luxury brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Cartier. Her wardrobe includes clothing in vivid colors, from bright-yellow shirts to green suspenders, and is constantly evolving. “My style is bold and daring,” she says.
As are her dreams. Sapeurism is a route toward greater confidence for women in what remains a male-dominated society. The win in the best-dressed competition “meant a lot” to her, says Okouo. She wants to inspire other women in her country to defy society’s expectations by expressing themselves through sapeurism, just as she has. “Style is all about your confidence too,” she says.
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