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The 'sapeurs' of Congo have American cousins

Stephanie McCrummen's "Letter from Congo" about the clothes horse "sapeurs" in that war-torn nation is the kind of report that makes me love looking at the front page of an actual newspaper. There you can always find a story you wouldn't otherwise see in our Web-enabled world of bespoke news tailored to our interests. But there was something missing from McCrummen's superb piece. The sapeurs have American cousins.

Jennifer Livington's phenomenal 1990 documentary "Paris is Burning" uncovered the world of drag balls put on by African American and Latino gay men in New York City. McCrummen doesn't say whether the men she features are gay. (Does the question need to be asked when one of your subjects is wearing "a pair black palazzo pants with a bustier top"?) But the parallels between the "children" of the film and the "sapeurs" of Congo are striking.

Both are obsessed with fashion, designer labels and wealth. "Glasses -- Gabbana! Shirt -- Cavalli! This is very expensive!" proclaimed sapeur Guy Matondo. One of the children says over a montage of the stuff of the rich and famous, "I always see the way rich people live and ... I say I have to have that. I never felt comfortable being poor. I just don't. Or even middle class doesn't suit me."

Both the sapeurs and the children have created a world around that obsession to find self-worth and prestige in a world that gives them none. "The balls to us is as close to reality as we're going to get to all of that fame and fortune and stardom and spotlight," says one of the children in the Livingston film. "Life is difficult," Yannick Kindingo told McCrummen. "Life is bad. Eating is a problem. But when you dress, people admire you. It gives you honor."

And both groups battle among themselves. As McCrummen writes,

Being a sapeur often involves competitions among fashion gangs that adopt names such as "The English" and "1000 Years' War," and on this day Luzolo and others were preparing for a fashion smackdown with rivals from the neighboring capital of Brazzaville, across the river in Congo Republic.

Those fashion gangs in "Paris is Burning" are called "houses," such as the House of LaBeija or the House of Chanel. Those fashion smackdowns in Congo are drag balls here. And it is at those voguing extravaganzas where where the children shine.

If the fashion smackdowns of the sapeurs are anything like the vogue battles of the children they are a sight to behold. And the ultimate expression of mind over matter.

By Jonathan Capehart  | March 11, 2010; 12:03 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Posted by: ej_smug | March 11, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

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