December 4, 2009

SAPE -- the Cult of Elegance, with Ineke Field Notes From Paris & Les Parfums de Rosine Rose d'Ete

Looking around the internet trying to find a certain kind of African music, I stumbled upon sites relating to a cult dedicated to elegance, known as 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


Qwendy said...

Dear Lucy, I love your soulful response to perfume and your ability to write about it! Your observations and analogies are eonderful and enlightening every time, and I"ve been so happy to get your blog in my box twice lately. Whever you decide to blog, I"m there!

I happen to live with a French guy who was brought up here in LA, in a particularly bleak part of what we call The Valley, and I know he relates to these guys, Les Sapeurs, and loves African Music like you do. I must admit I relate more to Ineke ; )

You know that Tom Schnabel here at KCRW knows almost everything about African music, if you are stuck. Thanks for the link to the amazing photos!

XXXX for wonderful holidays with real weather, I'm envious! Qwendy

Lucy said...

Dear Qwendy, thank you for such a lovely note.

I am very pleased to have the tip on the music source --

& it sounds to me from the adventures you mention on your site that the long trip to France in the company of your own personal Frenchman is living the life!

BTW, I saw that Paul Smith did a reinterpretation of the reinterpreters of fashion at his last show, and he also wrote an intro to The Gentlemen of Bacongo

here is a nice photo, he used narrow pink and peach and yellow to make narrow very correct suits:

the popinjay effect!

chayaruchama said...

Always savvy, and fascinatling , about Les Sapeurs !

Rose d'Ete, and Field Notes-
Two vastly different scents ;-)

Field Notes is so austere w/ me, lovely though it is.
The Rosine, however, is as playful and delicate as a breeze.

You nail it, when you so exactly refer to a life which may not be one's own...
But one would CLEARLY enjoy adopting, from time to time...

Lucy said...

Yes, Chaya, vastly different; the French connection is what unites them. That life. The French are both austere and hedonistic, the tension between the two makes them so attractive.

I am all for living the Paris cafe life, even if only vicariously. And the inhabiting the scent of yellow roses in full bloom while wearing Poiret gowns-- may we both fulfill that daydream, my dear elegant personne...