“Les Sapeuses” The Lady Dandies of the DRC

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Saturday, 14 October 2017 to Saturday, 16 December 2017

This exhibition documents the life and style of the sapeuses, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s ‘lady dandies’ subculture, through exhibits of textile accessories and 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 imitating 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 Congo and continental wars and whose subculture has now entered the mainstream (controversial President of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, is a self-confessed sapeur). 

The 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 a rife. 

OPEN: Tuesday – Saturday 10.30 – 17.00, late night Thursday 10.30 – 20.00

CLOSED: Sunday, Monday and Bank Holidays



020 7898 4046 recorded info

Venue ( Name ):

Venue ( Address ): 

University of London
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square
London, WC1H 0XG


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