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The Congolese people
Cultural Profile of their country- DR Congo
Characterized by its use of elegant, bold, and brilliant colorful fabrics and designs. The bright fabric, or pagne, is used by both men and women. A pagne is normally fabric cut into a 2-by-6 yard piece either single-sided or double-sided, depending on the design of the fabric. Derived from the French, meaning 'loincloth', the word has come to refer to any cloth for everyday wear. They are referred to as ‘Liputa’ by the locals and can be found at the local market.
The traditional clothing of the people of Congo for both men and women is made from Raffia, a material from a type of palm. Nowadays they are more commonly made out of cotton.
The fabric is used to create clothing through tailoring, head wraps, to carry a child or goods and as a body wrap or skirt. Women traditionally make the fabrics into long skirts and wrappers. This can be either formal or informal depending on the intricacy of the design, and go from simple draped fabric to fully tailored outfits, with women typically wearing a corresponding headscarf. Men wear a dashiki-style long shirt, or a button down shirt and long pants. Hats are also part of the attire because of the scorching heat, and the head wear provides sun protection and shade.
In the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, it's common for men and women to pair the traditional pagne with western elements, to create an outfit that mixes both types of dress. Western clothing as a whole has become very popular in the country. The more traditional styles of clothing for both men and women have begun to fade due to colonization and influence from the West, and are mainly used during traditional ceremonies.
Congolese fashion is pronounced and striking, and even though they've embraced some Western styles, they did not stop using their local fabrics and outfits. There is a mixture of modern and traditional outfits that use these stunning prints and fabrics. Congolese styles are created to stand out from the crowd, making use of both vibrant hues and striking prints to reflect their culture.
During the Mobutu dictatorship suit jackets and ties were banned, but now these types of clothing are popular, especially with the upper class men.
Liputa are sometimes designed for different purposes and aimed at certain audiences, like paying tribute to a leader, marking a special occasion, or for a sporting event.
In the DRC, men and women enjoy dressing up in nice clothes. Wearing nice clothes is extremely important, because the nicer the clothes are, the more respect one will receive.
Mamie Kapend is a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a designer that moved to the United States to design Congolese clothing. She has had great success and has helped the Congolese style spread all over the world.
Women wearing Liputa
Liputa literally means colorful. It is very popular among the local women, so it adapts and changes along with the fashion. Modern liputa outfits look a lot like modern clothes and often are very different from original traditional ones, but the prints on the fabric always show their affiliation to Congolese folk culture. Its style also signifies whether the woman is married or unmarried.
The attire for women with this name usually has four pieces of cloth made from the same material, either raffia or most commonly cotton. One piece is worn as a blouse, one as a wrapper, one is used to tie around the waist, and another one to tie on the head as a headwrap.
One piece of material is wrapped around from the waist to the feet, to cover the legs. Another piece ties to the waist to tighten the wrapper and keep it in place. This piece ties in such a way that the knot looks like a bow on the waist. The last piece is tied on the head as a headpiece to cover the hair. In modern times they've adopted the style of not securing the hair with the fabric, or to leave the hair loose even if they tie the wrap.
The blouse usually has embroidery with colorful threads and decorative beads around the neck as well. The neck is bigger, so that the head can easily fit through the blouse. Traditionally buttons were not used, however buttons can be used to decorate the blouse nowadays. Dyeing is the main method of coloring the cloth, with indigo used to color the material.
In this video, we can see examples of clothing from the DRC Fashion Week 2022:
Sapologists from Kinshasa
The 1970’s brought a new sub-culture that generated in the streets of Kinshasa, known as ‘Les Sapeurs’.
‘Les Sapeurs’ or ‘Sapologists’ are a group of well dressed and well groomed Congolese men that dedicate their time and money to dressing in striking, colorful, yet elegant attires.
One of the founders of this movement, and a very respected member in the Sapeur community, is Stervos Niarcos. Niarcos strongly promoted the movement, and because of that he is considered by many as the “Father of Sapology”.
To this day, Sapeurs continue to gather at his graveside in Gombe cemetery in Kinshasa, wearing their most extreme outfits to mark the passing of such a highly influential artist.
Papa Wemba, a talented musician that was a co-founder of the orchestra Zaïko Langa Langa, along with his own group Viva La Musica, also played a big role in making Sapology popular in the DRC. Since he travelled to Europe a lot to promote his groups and to perform, Papa Wemba was particularly influenced by European fashion, culture and sense of style.
A short while after Independence in DRC, President Mobutu imposed an Authenticity campaign suppressing the freedom of citizens to express themselves through their fashion choices. Mobutu forced all citizens to follow his new rules, which included the act of wearing westernized clothing. This made Wemba rebel against the majority, and he promoted Sapeur beliefs through his organization the Société Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants (The Society for the Advancement of Elegant People, or ‘S.A.P.E’ for short). Wemba and his group challenged dress codes, opposing what they called a ‘Re-Africanisation’, and bringing Sapology to the forefront of his band and society.
Being a Sapeur is much more than wearing the latest fashion. For most of the followers of this philosophy, it is a way of life and code for living, with some even going as far to say that it is a religion. And as with all religions, to be considered a true Sapeur, the person must follow to a certain set of rules, conventions and ideologies. As a general rule all Sapeurs should be polite and abide by the law. They should also be well dressed, be fragranced and groomed, wear designer clothes, and adopt a clean cut hair design. These are the necessary ingredients to being a true Sapeur, however they may vary slightly depending on individual style or preference, and even which Congo the person is from.
The Sapeurs from Congo Brazzaville in particular tend to wear no more than three colors/tones at once, excluding white. For them, pocket handkerchiefs are not folded, they are stuffed into the blazer pocket effortlessly. Brazzaville Sapeurs prefer to match and accessorize with canes, cigars, umbrellas, scarves, socks, suspenders, etc.
On the contrary, Kinshasa Sapeurs have a tendency to be more daring with their choices. For them, the more colors there are together, the better. Sapeurs from the DRC are known for standing out from the crowd, with one of the favorite designers being Yohji-Yamamoto, who is known for his bright clothes.
The flamboyant Sapeurs have become a part of Congolese culture, and can be seen on a daily basis along the streets of Kinshasa, as well as neighboring Congo Brazzaville. These well respected trendsetters have made it across Africa entering into fashion wars with one another in hopes of winning the title of “Best Sapeur in the world”.
During fashion battles, most Sapeurs open their suit jackets abruptly and stomp in an authoritative manner, to show which brand/label they are wearing. They also like to show off their shoes, most of which are usually J.M. Weston, a high-priced French shoemaker.
Sapology has also crossed the oceans onto the Congolese diaspora (Congo-Kinshasa and Congo Brazzavile) living across the world. In the early 80s and 90s, Belgian and French Medias talked a lot about this phenomenon, following Sapeurs on shopping trips and featuring special shows on TV to talk about it.