Today I’m thinking about elegance—what it is, what it means, and what forms it can take.
Much of our contemporary idea of elegance derives from the lifestyles and attire of the often frankly inelegant celebrities about whose lives we seem never to tire of hearing, and not only their fabulous vacations and torrid affairs but also the minutiae of their daily existence.
Though the intensity of the modern West’s obsession with celebrity culture, and the massive cottage industry that has grown up around it, are wholly new, in matters of style the public has looked to distinguished individuals for guidance at least since the Duke of Windsor and Fred Astaire became synonymous with male elegance in the 1930s. And in this regard—elegance—it must be said that the paragons of yesteryear, whether heads of state or silver screen idols, outshone many of their latter-day counterparts.
Michelle Obama wearing Junya Watanabe, adoring press notwithstanding, has style but lacks elegance. Carla Bruni, on the other hand, seems to have elegance in spades, as one might expect of a former model—yet she remains a model, wearing clothes well but without her own unifying aesthetic.
What then is elegance? And what purpose does this palpable yet unquantifiable attribute serve, other than to aestheticize human existence and to draw the occasional admiring glance?
These questions, never less than embers in my mind, were fanned into flame recently by my receipt of a rather astonishing photo book entitled Gentlemen of Bakongo: The Importance of Being Elegant. The subject of the book is sapeurs, the acolytes of a “religion of clothing” unique to the Congo, and the photographs depict real-life sapeurs in their native environment—the streets and open-air bars of Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the capital cities of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, respectively, which lie in sight of one another on opposite sides of the Congo River.
This book, as its title indicates, focuses exclusively on the sapeurs of the famous Bakongo neighborhood of Brazzaville. The photographer, Daniele Tamagni, has done an admirable job of capturing these rare birds in their often squalid environs. Indeed one might come away from her book with the impression that the streets of Congolese cities are positively crowded with peacocks young and old, nattily dressed in European finery.
What youthful Japanese are often said to have removed from the Western styles of dress they’ve co-opted—namely, their emotional content—even while perfecting them to excess, these Congolese men have restored and heightened. Harajuku girls with more or less sunny dispositions may think nothing of draping themselves in black lace as Gothic lolitas, but for Congolese sapeurs elegance neither begins nor ends with colorful plumage.
Tamagni writes, “Members [of SAPE] have their own code of honour, codes of professional conduct and strict notions of morality. It is a world within a world within a city. Respected and admired in their communities, today’s sapeurs see themselves as artists.” They are gentlemen, and although many younger sapeurs, unlike their forefathers, have organized themselves into competing gangs, they rarely brawl but instead engage in sartorial stand-offs, using their Sunday best as weapons.
And yet many of these young men are unemployed or make pitifully small wages. Some must save up for months to buy a single designer ensemble. Many is the girlfriend and mother, one can imagine, who wishes that her lover or son would put his money toward more practical goals—like buying a house. Foolish as their indulgence in clothing they can scarcely afford may seem (and in fact is), it’s clear that sapeurs have found a way to transcend their filthy surroundings. That fashion is the vehicle for this transcendence does not invalidate either the goal or the achievement.
It is easy sometimes for us to forget that money has no intrinsic value, and is useful only insofar as it can obtain for us goods and services that we need and desire. These things which money can buy, whether tangible possessions or intangible attainments such as an advanced education, do have value, either as means to an end or as ends in themselves. So although there is a sense in which the sapeurs, especially those in the younger generation—some of whom seem to compete with one another for gaudiest attire—dress to the nines for the sake of elegance alone, and although there is wisdom in urging them to use their incomes to better themselves, rather than merely their wardrobes, there is also much to be admired in the way they have forged, against the grain of their milieu, confident and unique self-identities.
Forced to confront daily a world that offers them little encouragement or opportunity, the sapeurs don their elegant suits as a defense against poverty, hopelessness and death. And in so doing, they inspire the next generation to look beyond the dark world in which they are raised and dream of what might be.