KINSHASA IS AN UNLIKELY CATWALK: IT’S THE CAPITAL OF A CIVIL war-scarred central African country that’s witnessing an epidemic of sexual violence against women. Against this bleak backdrop, the sapeuse movement is one part political statement to two parts sartorial daring.
‘Women are not in a good position in the DRC,’ says Musa Umpalaba [pictured right, with her daughter Ketsia], who prefers to go by her sapeuse moniker Princesse de la Sape. ‘So we must dress loud and shout even louder!’ The sapeuses are the female answer to the Society for the Advancement of Elegant People aka les sapeurs, a resistance movement that took root in colonial Congo in the 20s. The original, male sapeurs adopted the Parisian tailoring and flashy accessories of their French and Belgian masters as a way of asserting the Congolese country’s right to self-rule.
The sapeuses’ adoption of gentlemanly dress, says Umpalaba, is deliberately subversive: ‘It is easy to look like a gentleman,’ she says. ‘But to act like a gentleman? Today, we have to show the men how it is done.’
The Lady Dandies of the DRC: An Exhibition will be shown at the Photographic Space at London’s Brunei Gallery in summer 2016; facebook.com/sapeuses