Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

Authenticity in Fashion

Fashion is the medium and the message.

Richard Thompson Ford

Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997), president of Zaire (1971–1997), in his favorite look, an abacost suit topped by a leopard-skin hat; Universal Images Group North America LLC/DeAgostini/Alamy Stock Photo.

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, 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.

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