Les Sapeuses: the Women Dandies of the DRC

Sally Howard

  • 8th Feb - 6th April 2023
  • Heritage Gallery

Les Sapeuses: the Women Dandies of the DRC documents the life and style of the sapeuses, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s ‘female dandies’ subculture, through the reportage photography of Kinshasa-based photographer Junior D. Kannah.

The sapeuses are a recent offshoot of the sapeurs, a male sartorial resistance movement that blossomed in Brazzaville, Kinshasa’s neighbouring city (now capital of the Republic of Congo) in the 1920s, when the former city was part of the colonial bloc of French Equatorial Africa. 

The sapeurs – or Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People) – sought to resist French and Belgian colonial rule by adopting and pastiching the ‘master’s clothes’, with prominent sapeurs also being key players in influential Parisian anti-colonial pressure group L’Amicale. The sapeur style and gentlemanly code of honour was formalised in the mid-20th century under the leadership of ‘dapper’ Papa Wemba, a rumba artist who was known for his taste in dazzling white suits and monochrome spats. Bemba  influenced a later generation of sapeurs who rose to political power through the turbulent years of the Congolese and continental wars and whose subculture has now entered the mainstream (controversial president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, is a self-confessed sapeur). 

The female answer to the sapeurs, les sapeuses, have emerged in the past decade as young female Kinshasans view the inherited traditions of la sape as method of escape from rigid gendered roles and expectations. For some sapeuses, who traditionally dress in masculine suits and accessories imported via the Congolese diaspora in Belgium and France, la sape is a return to pre-colonial modes of strong African femininity; for others the movement, with its sapeuse solidarity clubs and rich socio-historical heritage, is a means of operating as a queer woman in a nation and era in which homophobia is rife.

Image credits: all images in banner header are details from photographs by Junior D Kannah.

Junior D. Kannah: photojournalist based in Kinshasa. A regular for agencies AFP/Getty, Kannah’s images record the tumult and social change in his home nation. Journalist, Sally Howard, is curator of this exhibition, which emerged from a 2018 story on which she collaborated with Junior for Marie Claire USA. Sally Howard is a UK-based broadsheet journalist and the author of several books on social affairs and feminism. She holds a Master’s in Gender Studies and the Global South from SOAS, University of London.

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