At this point, most people know about drag queens — thanks, RuPaul! — but fewer are aware of drag kings: women who dress as men.
There are thriving drag-king scenes in London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles — and, most subversively, Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, where these women are out-dancing, out-posing and out-dressing their peers. They are also fighting for female equality in a region decidedly not known for it.
These are the Sapeuses, a branch of part of Le Sapeurs, aka the “Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo.” Formerly an all-male group, Sapeurs have been around since the beginning of the 20th Century, when colonial “masters” would gift their old clothing to their slaves.
Soon, the slaves found a way of rebelling.
“Captivated by the snobbery and refined elegance of the Coast Men’s attire, Congolese houseboys spurned their masters’ secondhand clothes and became unremitting consumers and fervent connoisseurs, spending their meager wages extravagantly to acquire the latest fashions from Paris,” writes Didier Gondola in the essay “La Sape Exposed!: High Fashion Among Lower-Class Congolese.”
“It’s not only about spending a lot of money on the clothes, but also the way they speak, the way they move,” Hector Mediavilla told NPR. “It’s a way of presenting their lives and being somebody in a society that doesn’t give you many opportunities.”
The pacifist Sapeur movement waxed and waned throughout the 20th Century but was revived in the 1970s by musician Papa Wembe and again in 1999 after the vicious civil war in the Republic of Congo. However, it wasn’t until 10 years ago that women were formally allowed into the group.
Edith Loubaki, 49, was one of the first Sapeuses publicly accepted as a Sapeur, although she has been dressing in male drag since 1980.
“I started in 1980 when I was very young,” said the market saleswoman and hairdresser, who was wearing a pressed pink dress shirt and a purple French suit when I met her. “My first husband was a Sapeur. You always need to be clean; with the Sapeurs, you are in a clean place with clean people. And it gives an example to my children that you should always care about your appearance.”
Sapeurs have gained international notoriety in the last decade. They were cited as influencing fashion designer Junya Watanabe’s Fall 2015 collection and Paul Smith’s Spring/Summer 2010 collection, have been featured in a Guinness Beer advertisement and mini-documentary in 2014, and starred in Kendrick Lamar’s 2018 music video “All The Stars.”
It took five years of training before I could come out as a Sapeur and be accepted in the community
– Anna Loubinzi
Anna Loubinzi, 32, became a Sapeur after seeing some members on television.
“I just loved it,” she said. But enthusiasm isn’t enough to join the group, of which there are now as many female members as male.
“It took five years of training before I could come out as a Sapeur and be accepted in the community,” Loubinzi recalled. Training included lessons on how to mix and match clothing, how to walk properly, how to pose and how to dance.
In a similar vein to drag shows and competitions, different Sapeur communities compete against one another — mugging their way down an impromptu catwalk, flexing their muscles, puffing out their chests and popping colorful umbrellas.
“The main competition is the Festival of Sapeurs in September,” said Loubinzi, who attended a gathering with her young son. “Being a Sapeur is in the blood and so my son will be one! I am training him now.”
The rules of the Sapeurs are strict. You cannot wear more than three colors at a time. You can not enter a Sapeur clubhouse unless you are one. You must master basic footwork and dance moves. And you can only dress as a man.
Chantal Kourissa, 45, was raised in the culture. “I started when I was ten because my parents were Sapeurs,” said the police officer who is married with three children. “From a very young age, I have dressed as a man. I love it.”
Republic of Congo president Dennis Sassou Nguesso has raised the group’s profile from cult status to a “cultural heritage,” allowing them to participate in public events.
“They are hired for weddings and advertisements now,” Anuncia said.
And by allowing women to participate, it offers liberation and empowerment in a society where women are often seen as second-class citizens.
“We are celebrated here,” another female Sapeur told me.
No one I met would say they were anything but heterosexual, which is understandable in a country where members of the LGBTQ community suffer discrimination.
All Sapeurs, be they male or female, uphold the creed to “bring joy and happiness. To enjoy life and create a good atmosphere.”
As the narrator intoned in the 2014 Guinness commercial: “When there’s peace, there’s la Sape. When there’s peace, there’s life…These extraordinary [people] remind us that in life you can always choose who you are.”
Or, as RuPaul once said: “We’re all born naked. The rest is drag.”