The pursuit of authenticity in fashion has taken more than a few interesting turns in the modern world. Consider its role in the political project of President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who during the early 1970s imposed a series of cultural reforms known as the retour à l’authenticité (return to authenticity) designed to rid the nation of European influences. Cities named after Europeans and colonial officials were given African names: Leopoldville became Kinshasa; Stanleyville, named after the Welsh explorer who established European rule, became Kisangani. Mobutu’s government encouraged citizens to change their Christian names and threatened any parent giving a child a Western name with five years’ imprisonment.
Mobutu also banned European attire, imposing a sort of national uniform—a Mao-style tunic called an abacost—short for à bas le costume, or “down with the suit”—inspired by a visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1973. The abacost, thick horn-rim glasses, and a leopard-skin fez or toque became the signature style of dress for Mobutu, who controlled Zaire until 1997. He was forced to flee following a civil war—but only after siphoning billions of dollars from the national economy as the common people starved. Ironically, the abacost, designed to unify the nation and level social distinctions, became an international symbol of the corrupt postcolonial autocrat.
Before it was Zaire, the country was part of the Belgian Congo and subject to one of the more vicious, chaotic, and exploitative colonial regimes in history. Even by the standards of the colonial exploitation typical of its era, the atrocities of the Belgian Congo stood out, provoking international protest. Most famously, in 1899 Joseph Conrad published the classic novella Heart of Darkness, in which he described the horrors of life in the Congo. In 1905, Mark Twain published a satirical condemnation titled King Leopold’s Soliloquy—a reference to the ruler of Belgium at the time—and Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, issued The Crime of the Congo in 1909. The two greatest African American leaders of the day, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, put aside their notoriously fierce disagreements to join in condemning Belgian rule in the Congo. Reform was slow, uneven, and incomplete. The Congo won independence in 1960 and in 1971 (ten years after Mobutu overthrew the short-lived government of its first democratically elected president, Patrice Lumumba), it became the Republic of Zaire. After Mobutu fled, Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
No one sought to restore the names of cities that once honored Europeans such as Leopold and Stanley, but the Congolese people reversed most other elements of Mobutu’s scripted authenticité. No one, it seems, misses the abacost.
La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes (SAPE) is a league of extraordinary gentlemen dedicated to an exacting standard of personal style. The “Sapeurs” follow a strict dress code—the “Code of Sapologie,” which dictates sartorial and grooming details such as how high to wear one’s socks, what hairstyle to wear, and whether one should leave a single button on a suit jacket cuff unfastened. (One should.) According to historian Ch. Didier Gondola, Sapeurs carry ivory- or silver-handled walking sticks and wear finely tailored suits, designer colognes, horn-rimmed glasses, and silk pocket squares, as well as “J.M. Weston lizardskin loafers [and]…Cartier watches.”11xCh. Didier Gondola, “Dream and Drama: The Search for Elegance among Congolese Youth,” African Studies Review 42, no. 1 (1999), 23, 24, https://doi.org/10.2307/525527. One Sapeur claims to own more than thirty suits from the best European tailors, to ensure that he never has to wear the same ensemble twice. Some Sapeurs dress in the subdued tones of a middle-aged CEO, while others prefer designer fashions in bold colors worthy of a fauvist painter. Dressed in their finest, the Sapeurs congregate and promenade through the city streets, living examples of vestimentary refinement and conspicuous self-esteem, dandies in the mode of Beau Brummel and the Comte d’Orsay.
The Sapeurs would be worthy of note—and a photo shoot—in any of the world’s great fashionable metropolises. But these twenty-first-century boulevardiers hail from Brazzaville, capital of the DRC’s smaller neighbor, the Republic of the Congo, and Kinshasa, the DRC capital. These two nations are among the poorest and most troubled in the world: The DRC had a per capita gross domestic product of only US$557 in 2020, according to the World Bank.22xWorld Bank, GDP Per Capita (Current US$): Congo, Dem. Rep., 2021, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=CD. The Sapeurs have adopted—one might say appropriated—European sartorial traditions. But in their hands, fine tailoring is a ceremonial costume; high-fashion trademarks become signs of civic ideals, and what might appear to be a destructive struggle for status is in fact a choreographed dance, symbolizing a peaceful competition for social esteem and expressing a critique of a society plagued by endemic violence and poisoned by oppression and corruption.
The sape was born when the two Congos were controlled by French and Belgian colonists.33xGondola, “Dream and Drama.” Much like certain white slave owners in the American South, some white colonists took pride in the sophistication of their servants and encouraged them to dress in European fashions. Adopted—and adapted—by black Africans, stylish European attire became a Congolese status symbol. But as in the United States, black people who dressed “above their station” could also face censure and ridicule. In the early twentieth century, for instance, a European writer noted with chagrin that “the locals in the region of Brazzaville dress up too much…to flaunt their wealth. Many pride themselves on following Parisian fashion…and now sport elegant panama hats.”44xJehan Gaspar Marie, Baron de Witte, Les deux Congo. 35 ans d’apostolat au Congo français [The two Congos: Thirty-five years of an apostolate in the French Congo] (Paris, France: Plon-Nourrit, 1913), xii, 164. Similarly, a colonial governor wrote, with a condescending incredulity, that “the elite of Brazzaville dress sumptuously and even with a certain elegance.”55xGondola, “Dream and Drama,” 27. Today’s sapeurs are guardians of a long-standing Congolese tradition of sartorial refinement: “The sape comes from our fathers and our grandfathers…my father was an elegant man,” said one sapeur. “He was the kind of person to put a breast pocket on his pyjamas.”66xIbid.
What does authenticity mean to the Congolese people? Is it authenticité—a stylized and highly selective blend of African traditions, read through severe Maoist dogmatism and deployed in the service of a self-serving autocrat? Or is it the sape—a stylized revival of a generations-old sartorial tradition that has adapted the status symbols of European colonists to serve local social needs and aspirations?
Our relationship with our clothing reflects a fraught and often contradictory ideal of authenticity. Fashion is notoriously inauthentic: By reputation it’s pretentious, contrived, status conscious, and ostentatious. But what would an authentic mode of dress look like? Would it be unassuming and strictly practical? Thomas More suggested in Utopia that a virtuous society would eschew the fripperies of fashion. Jewels and precious metals would be treated with disdain. All clothing would be functional and bland—identical cloaks in “the natural color”—unadorned even to the point of abandoning the artifice of dyes. But the very fact that More described the clothing of the Utopians in such detail betrays the contradiction: A bland, unassuming wardrobe becomes a sort of fashion statement, designed to leave an impression. Like Mobutu’s authenticité, a drab cloak is not the unself-conscious consequence of practical need or real “lived experience,” but a fantasized reconstruction of an imagined ideal.
The popularity of the ideal of authenticity, then, is evidence that most of its expressions are inauthentic. And this suggests the intriguing possibility that deliberate quotation, borrowing, or appropriation, like the fabulous reinterpretation of Western status symbols in the sape, may be our most natural and unstudied reflex, the most authentic act possible.
The quest for an elusive authenticity inspired students at Pitzer College, a private institution in the Los Angeles suburbs, to paint a strident demand on a public wall in early 2017: “White girl, take off your hoops!!!” One student, Alegria Martinez, explained that white women wearing hoop earrings were guilty of “appropriating styles…that belong to the black and brown folk who created the culture. The culture actually comes from a background of oppression and exclusion.” Martinez insisted that “the black and brown bodies who typically wear hooped earrings…are typically viewed as ghetto, and are not taken seriously by others in their daily lives…hooped earrings [have become] symbols…of resistance.” She asked rhetorically, “Why should white girls be able to take part in this culture (wearing hoop earrings…) and be seen as ‘cute/aesthetic/ethnic’?”77xKatherine Timpf, “Campus-Wide Email Tells White Girls to Stop Wearing Hoop Earrings Because It’s Cultural Appropriation,” National Review, March 8, 2017, https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/03/campus-email-white-girls-stop-wearing-hoop-earrings-cultural-appropriation/.
The complaint was that a style that is apprehended as tacky and vulgar on dark-skinned women becomes edgy and playful on a white woman. Another student added, “If you didn’t create the culture as a coping mechanism for marginalization, take off those hoops, if your feminism isn’t intersectional, take off those hoops, if you try to wear mi cultura when the creators can no longer afford it, take off those hoops.”88xElliot Dordick, “Pitzer College RA: White People Can’t Wear Hoop Earrings,” Claremont Independent, March 7, 2017, http://claremontindependent.com/pitzer-college-ra-white-people-cant-wear-hoop-earrings/.
Similarly, when high school student Keziah Daum posted photos of her Chinese-style qipao dress on Twitter in the spring of 2018, she stood out from her peers in their conventional pastel taffeta and chiffon. Some Asian American commenters did not appreciate her bid for individuality: “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress” read one post.99xJeremy Lam (@jere-bare), “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress,” Twitter, April 27, 2018, https://t.co/vhkNOPevKD. A follow-up post elaborated upon and intensified the criticism: “I’m proud of my culture…. For it simply to be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”1010xIbid. Another user insisted, “This is not ok. I wouldn’t wear traditional Korean, Japanese, or any other traditional dress and I’m Asian. I wouldn’t wear traditional Irish, Swedish, or Greek dress either. There’s a lot of history behind these clothes. Sad.”1111xAs quoted in Richard Thompson Ford, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2021), 339.
This peculiar concern with authenticity and appropriation seems to be unique to societies marked by conspicuous racial or ethnic hierarchies. Groups who are more secure in their social status tend to be more forgiving when outsiders borrow their fashions. For instance, in China, the birthplace of the qipao, Daum’s choice of prom dress received a much warmer reception: “As a Chinese I really like your dress. And I think it’s kind of a way to show respect to our culture,” one post read.1212xRoger Lin (@lin_chenhao), “As a Chinese I really like your dress….,” Twitter, May 11, 2018, https://twitter.com/lin_chenhao. Another suggested that Daum branch out and wear other traditional Chinese clothing as well: “I’m Chinese, most of us support you. We hope you can publicize the Chinese costumes a lot. Besides qipao, we have Hanfu [a form of traditional attire wore by the Han people of China].”1313x“non-charon” (@DengLeader), “I’m Chinese, most of us support you…,” Twitter, May 4, 2018, https://twitter.com/DengLeader. In an interview with the New York Times, Zhou Yijun, a Hong Kong cultural critic, said, “It’s ridiculous to criticize this as cultural appropriation. From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a qipao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?”1414xAmy Qin, “Teenager’s Prom Dress Stirs Furor in U.S.—but Not in China,” New York Times, May 2, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/02/world/asia/chinese-prom-dress.html#:~:text=TAIPEI%2C%20Taiwan%20%E2%80%94%20When%20Keziah%20Daum,fit%20or%20thigh%2Dhigh%20slit.&text=%E2%80%9CMy%20culture%20is%20NOT%E2%80%9D%20your,wrote%2C%20adding%20profanity%20for%20effect.
Anna Chen, a London-based cultural commentator, pointed out that the qipao is itself a cultural hybrid: a traditional Manchu garment retailored with distinctly Western influences. “The current outcry could be compared to taking offence because someone in Asia wore a tuxedo,” she opined.1515xAnna Chen, “An American Woman Wearing a Chinese Dress Is Not Cultural Appropriation,” The Guardian, May 4, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/04/american-woman-qipao-china-cultural-appropriation-minorities-usa-dress. Indeed, the tuxedo itself was a hybrid, combining elements of the traditional formal dinner suit with the sportier, more casual short jacket—and one unmistakably non-Western element. It was taken up as part of a relaxed after-dinner ensemble by English aristocrats—possibly first and certainly foremost the Prince of Wales—and later adopted by a wealthy resident of Tuxedo Park, New York, the town that gave it its unofficial name.1616xAsh Carter, “The Fascinating History of the Town Where the Tuxedo Was Born,” Town and Country, January 1, 2012, https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/tradition/a833/tuxedo-jacket-history/. In an act of shameless cultural appropriation, fashionable men covered the waist of their new, modern dinner suits with a cummerbund—an accessory first worn in South Asia and adopted by the British military in colonial India (in Persian and Hindi it is called a kamarband). Like a white person in dreadlocks or a qipao, these dapper men used an element of another cultural tradition to add personality and a dash of the exotic to their wardrobe.
Cultural appropriation goes both ways: Elites and dominant groups turn the hard-won styles of the downtrodden into exoticized fashion trends and the downtrodden return the compliment, remaking the customs of the upper classes and subverting their exclusivity and exploiting their symbolism for new, rebellious purposes.
Consider the notorious “preppy look.” The moneyed elite of the American Northeast may have inspired it, but what we today rightly admire but mistakenly identify as timeless preppy style in fact reflects the relatively recent contributions of a group of talented photographers, men and women of taste, and, of course, fashion designers who—while capitalizing on the mystique that comes along with pedigree and old money—curated, edited, and retailored the attire of the New England blueblood into something genuinely rakish and chic. They include African Americans, such as Miles Davis, who made the sack suit and oxford cloth button-down collar shirt an icon of cool; Japanese, such as photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida and editors Shosuke Ishizu, Toshiyuki Kurosu, and Hajime Hasegawa, who applied the exquisite aesthetic sense of their island nation to curate the selection of American sportswear shown in their 2010 book Take Ivy; and American Jews, such as Lisa Birnbach, author of The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), and of course, Ralph Lauren, born Ralph Lifshitz to working-class parents in the Bronx.
In the 1980s, Lauren perfected the Ivy League look, painstakingly distilling the platonic ideal of preppy staples such as the khaki trouser, the deck shoe, the penny loafer, the duffle coat, the oxford cloth button-down-collar shirt, and, of course, the polo shirt, after which he named one of his clothing lines. Like a Michelin-starred chef reimagining the cheeseburger, he remade and perfected these classics. In so doing, he captured the imagined experience of the rich WASP lifestyle in his clothing, making it available to everyone as aspirational fantasy. Devotees purchased Polo shirts in every color of the rainbow, sometimes doubling down and wearing two at time, collars flipped up, or layering one under a Polo-branded oxford cloth button-down. They paired them with Polo woven cloth belts, Polo madras print pants, and Polo deck shoes. Aspiring preps took the sardonic Official Preppy Handbook as a serious guide to personal style, and the most devoted even sought out Lauren’s inspirations at old school stalwarts such as J. Press, L.L. Bean, and Brooks Brothers, only to find that Lauren’s copies were more authentic than the long-since-degraded originals. Slowly but surely, the New England elites who had inspired Lauren began to take their inspiration from him. In 1980, The Official Preppy Handbook confidently declared that “the sport shirt of choice is the Lacoste.”1717xLisa Birnbach, ed., The Official Preppy Handbook (New York, NY: Workman, 1980), 141. By 2011, the blog Ivy-Style described Ralph Lauren’s polo shirts as “Lacoste, only better,” and no less an authority than menswear legend Alan Flusser told a reporter that on weekends in the Hamptons, the shirt of choice was now “not Lacoste…but Polo.”1818xMatthew Benz, “Le Crocodile: How Lacoste Became the Preppy Polo of Choice,” Ivy-Style (blog), June 8, 2011, http://www.ivy-style.com/le-crocodile-how-lacoste-became-the-preppy-polo-of-choice.html.
Lauren’s genius was not to copy preppy style, but to take the all-American, democratic aspiration to aristocratic pedigree and attach it to his own aesthetic sense. Today’s preppy look reflects the appropriation of a marker of an insular ethnicity by fashionable outsiders and the transformation of a status symbol into an aesthetic sensibility.
Players Only Live Once
“But I’m doing pretty good, far as geniuses go, and I’m doing pretty hood in my pink Polo,” quips Kanye West in his 2007 rap “Barry Bonds.” By 2007, the unlikely link between Ralph Lauren’s pony-and-rider trademark and the culture of black inner cities was so well established that every listener from Compton to Kennebunkport got the joke. Hip-hop artists, street gangs, and stylish kids had adopted a variation of the preppy look: polo and rugby shirts, ski sweaters, even blue blazers emblazoned with gilded crests and faux-aristocratic insignia.
In the early years of the second millennium, this was relatively new. Back in the mid-1980s, hip-hop style had consisted of brightly colored sports jerseys and hats, track suits, basketball trainers, and showy gold and diamond jewelry, or somber, prison- and military-inspired looks such as black, navy, and gray pants, work jackets, and jumpsuits. Both styles involved straightforward references to black urban life: Professional athletes were heroes in black communities, the quintessential local boys made good; prison grays were a sartorial comment on the all-too-common incarceration of young black men, while work wear in SWAT-team black and navy expressed tough-guy proletarian solidarity, with a nod to the martial chic of 1970s black radicalism.
Hip-hop had always worn its pecuniary aspirations on its sleeve. The earliest rappers bragged about their wealth and sexual conquests with unrepressed bravado: “checkbook, credit card, more money than a sucker could ever spend,” boasted the Sugarhill Gang in 1979’s classic “Rapper’s Delight.” From thick gold chains and diamonds in its early years to luxury cars, Cristal Champagne, and charter jets in its more lucrative mature phase, hip-hop has always toggled between a gritty realism describing the rigors of ghetto life and an escapist fantasy of conspicuous consumption, in which rappers take the ultimate revenge on a racist power structure by living larger than Wall Street financiers and Fortune 500 CEOs. Branding plays an important role in evoking the lush life: Rappers name-drop their favorite fashion designers and luxury wines and spirits to achieve verisimilitude, much as F. Scott Fitzgerald did with posh hotels and Ivy League colleges and as Ian Fleming did with 007’s Bentleys, Aston Martins, Bollinger Champagne, and dinners at London’s exclusive men’s club, Blades.
In the classic Veblenian mode, only the showiest and most obvious status symbols would do—iconic trademarks, prominently displayed. The oversized Mercedes hood ornament became a medallion hung on a gold chain necklace; the gold-toned Cristal Champagne bottle made appearances in numerous videos and on many album covers. Gucci and Louis Vuitton—which had endlessly multiplied their trademarks to form textile patterns—were cherished brands, both for high-end shopping by successful musicians and for creative appropriation by social critics and inventive entrepreneurs. Dapper Dan—Harlem haberdasher to hip-hop elites such as LL Cool J, Run DMC, Eric B. & Rakim, and Salt-N-Pepa—designed bomber jackets, track suits, boots, and even car upholstery using Louis Vuitton and Gucci fabrics, sometimes combining incongruous high-status trademarks (e.g., Louis Vuitton fabric overlaid with gold Mercedes-Benz logos), prefiguring today’s multibrand collaborations (Mercedes + Vuitton!) in an orgy of conspicuous display.
The generation that came after Dapper Dan’s heyday in the 1990s began to notice and emulate the subtler, blue-blood styling of Ralph Lauren. Thirstin Howl III was one of a group of young men from Brooklyn’s mean streets who, in the late 1980s, called themselves the “Lo Lifes” (“lo” being short for Polo.) According to Howl, the Lo Lifes were a fusion of two groups—“Ralphie’s Kids” from Crown Heights, and “Polo USA” from the Brownsville Projects—united by a shared love of Ralph Lauren’s preppy garments.1919xDan Adler, “The History of Hip-Hop’s Obsession with Polo Ralph Lauren,” Esquire, August 16, 2016, http://www.esquire.com/style/a47568/hip-hop-polo-ralph-lauren-history/. Polo’s image of upper-crust Americana was a big part of the appeal. The Lo Lifes weren’t just wearing the colorful sportswear—they were adopting the image that countless magazine ads, billboards, and Polo boutiques had created for the brand. As Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan explained, “It expressed you had money. It’s like when you think of that horse on your shirt, that horse symbolizes them cats out there playing polo. You know the majority of them is well-off— is comfortable. So it kinda made us feel like, if you got anything Polo on, you got money. You got a certain amount of status in the neighborhood.” According to rapper Young Dro, who recorded the 2010 album POLO (Players Only Live Once), Lauren’s clothing offered a fantasy of upward mobility: “Once we put that outfit on, we could go chill at the gables with the White people…I could go places. I’ma do this through my outfit, nah mean? I’ma go make a living and a life out of what I got through these clothes right here.” Similarly, Thirstin Howl III recalls that “it started because there were a lot of people in Lo Lifes who were...the kid who got laughed at about his clothes when he was younger. The kid who didn’t have nothin’…. That’s what made Lo Lifes…that’s what made them go get it and want to look the flyest…they couldn’t say nothin’ back to you because your shit was extra sharp.”2020x“Polo and Hip-Hop, an Oral History (Pt. 1),” XXL Mag, November 30, 2010, http://www.xxlmag.com/lifestyle/2010/11/polo-and-hip-hop-an-oral-history-pt-1/2/?trackback=tsmclip.
Fashion brands took on a new meaning in the hands of Dapper Dan and the Lo Lifes. Dapper Dan’s creations were not copies or knockoffs of the designer brands: They were wry, even critical statements about those brands. Similarly, the Lo Lifes weren’t exactly trying to pass themselves off as Andover students. Expensive designer clothing symbolizes elite privilege only if others assume one has actually paid for it; any suspicion that it has been begged or borrowed—to say nothing of stolen—undermines the prestige and suggests a hardscrabble life of hustling and crime. But the Polo-wearing gangs didn’t always come by their Polo gear lawfully. Howl recounts, “Everyday was a fashion show and a shoplifting spree throughout upstate malls and Manhattan stores.” Moreover, they proudly announced the fact with names like “Polo USA (United Shoplifters Association).” For the Lo Lifes, expensive designer clothing conveyed a different kind of status: “If you wanted to be fresh, you had to defend your shit. You had to know how to fight….cause [otherwise] you wouldn’t be fresh that long.”2121xAdler, “The History of Hip-Hop’s Obsession with Polo Ralph Lauren.”
An Obsession with Authenticity
In a society saturated with overdetermined symbolism and self-referential gestures, blatant and unapologetic appropriation may be the most authentic expression possible. When practiced sincerity and conspicuous modesty are the fashionable etiquette, the affectation of a blonde prom queen in a qipao, a rapper in head-to-toe Ralph Lauren, or an immaculately tailored-out boulevardier parading through a Congolese slum is somehow refreshingly honest as well as remarkably sophisticated. They all know they are not the authors of their own unique personalities. Instead, they find uniqueness and personal meaning in their relationship with the images, fantasies, and obsessions of mass culture.
In fact, it has been so ever since the birth of modern fashion in the early Renaissance. Fashion has always used clothing with older associations to create new expressions of individual personality and collective belonging. The kind of undergarments worn beneath plate armor became status symbols because of their association with elite military tech. Tailoring eventually created a constant stream of clothing designed for elites and ceremonial purposes but quickly usurped by wealthy commoners to convey a growing sense of bourgeois confidence in booming, postplague economies. Women repurposed men’s clothing to demonstrate a determination to enjoy male prerogatives. African Americans, from the early days of chattel slavery through the height of the civil rights movement, used refined European attire to undercut the demeaning stereotypes of white supremacy.
Today, scrappy urbanites from Brazzaville to the Bronx adopt and adapt the symbolic power of trademarks and branded “merch” to embody their social and political ambitions, while upper-class suburbanites try on the garments of foreign cultures to add an edge to their shopping-mall wardrobes. There are valid criticisms of some of these fashion statements: Some are vulgar, some are insensitive, and most are intertwined with rapacious and exploitative industries. But one criticism that isn’t convincing is that they are inauthentic. Our obsession with authenticity is a bad fashion trend. It is mannered and contrived, reflecting a trendy aspiration toward a manufactured simulation of an idealized innocence, a naive relationship between an individual and a pure culture. A romantic ideal from an imagined past, this ideal is the antithesis of modernity itself. If true authenticity is a more-or-less organic reflection of a living culture, a society and historical moment, then the romantic and fashionable ideal of authenticity condemns the only possible way to be authentic.