SAPE (Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes). The more I find out about this movement, the more I feel an affinity to the devotees. It originated in the Congo, after the Belgian and French arrived with a distinctive style of dress and manners which were obviously very different from that of the native Congolese people. On close observation, it was seen that together with the brutal aspects of their colonialist culture, the French speaking Europeans brought a distinctive quality to their manner of self-presentation. They set great value on personal elegance, along with a strict sense of grooming and appreciation of fine materials and European workmanship. This strongly affected the Congolese, who some say are the most naturally elegant people of Africa. Some became fascinated by this particularly French style of charismatic self-esteem engendered by this highly mannered and stylish self-presentation. The Congolese interpretation of these concepts morphed into something akin to a cargo cult, with serious followers to this day. They have created their own version of living in close connection to extreme French stylishness, despite being surrounded by difficult conditions.
In the Sapeur societies men vie to have the most elegant self presentation, couture clothing, and grooming (including fine perfume). The devotees re-name themselves and invent gestures and walking styles to heighten the effects of what they wear. The Congo still suffers terribly and the people are in constant and immanent danger of the disasters of war, but the Sapeurs have spiritually migrated into an alternate universe. They are pacifists, because it is impossible to pursue such elegance and engage in the chaos of strife at the same time. I admire the interpretation of elegance as a motive and force for peace and pacificism in an area constantly under threat of war and daily violence.
I identify with this attitude and these goals, because I know that personal elegance (and especially the use of fine perfumes) can create a concrete connection to the glamor, romance and beauty of an idealized aspect of our culture and the past, even if the rest of the environment may not support such an image.
I found myself transported to both the season of summer and the city of Paris by the use of two very alternate and opposite spectrum perfumes this past week. Both are intimately and conceptually connected to the lore of French elegance and style. Les Parfums de Rosine's Rose d'Ete (the Summer Rose) is a very pleasant and ambient rounded fragrance, with a pure yellow honeyed-rose, uplifted by tart apple, melon and linden notes. Worn with a thin cotton shirt, it reaches into past associations of French style during its high floral periods of the turn of the last century and the 18th Antoinette aristo-milkmaid styles; sophisticated and rustic at the same time. Field Notes from Paris, by Ineke is for the city-dweller, drinking cinnamon dusted black coffee in a cafe in Paris while reading a newspaper with some good chocolate and caramel consumed in the immediate vicinity, while listening to smart, fast, complicated music,like Miles Davis. The bergamot, cedar, wax, tobacco flower, leaf and vanilla give it a tailored quietness that sits well on an arm clothed in a finely knit wool sleeve.
Wearing these two fragrances over the course of the past few days gave me a sensory connection to the pleasures of a both strict and hedonistic culture I myself do not live in, but would like to, mentally if not physically, vacation in. Perfumes offer this experience even if only vicariously, through the elements of style that specifically recall the details the legendary forms of French elegance. I can have all this even while spending too much time in a florescent lit windowless room dealing with a pile of papers. So I worship at the altar of my own French cargo cult of perfume, which keeps me human in the midst of certain environments that would otherwise be a little too close to sensory deprivation. The gods of French perfume throw me the lifeline of elegance!
Above photo of a Sapeur's dressing table from the wonderful photo essay by Hector Mediavilla :The Congolese Sape