Clothing as a form of rebellion runs deep within the British psyche, as a refusal to follow the societal norm has been inherent in every youth movement since the war.
Punk is surely the most lasting expression of this to date, beginning in the 70s against a backdrop of growing unease due to rising unemployment and post war consensus politics which preceded Thatcherism. The Immigration Acts in 1962 and ’65, restricting the amount of foreign immigrants into Britain, also added to the tension by institutionalising racism within the country and adding to many people’s anti-establishment views and increasing mistrust of the police. This was particularly prevalent in places such as Brixton, which had predominantly afro-Caribbean community. Police aimed at reducing the high levels of crime through “Operation Swamp” where hundreds of officers were dispatched, many disguised in ordinary clothing, to use the “sus law”. Individuals would be stopped and searched at random based on a “suspicion’ of wrong-doing, often misused in order to persecute the black community.
You see, he feels like Ivan
Born under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin'
At the end of the harder they come
You know it means no mercy
They caught him with a gun
No need for the Black Maria
Goodbye to the Brixton sun
- The Clash, Guns Of Brixton
Just as the Sapeurs adopted the image of the French Colonials, so too did British Punk bands like the Clash welcome the influence of Jamaican immigrants, expressing sympathy for their ill treatment and embracing ska and reggae music.
This blatant disassociation from the police and government was reflected in their militaristic dress; the rebel uniform created by Alex Michon to unite those who were prepared to fight in the war against ‘the man’. She used tough, heavy duty black out material left over from the WWII and brass suitcase fasteners instead of buttons: “it was flash but still tough. They were on parade, but generals not foot soldiers”.
|The Clash's military inspired clothing|
Of course Punk fashion cannot be discussed with out mentioning the influence of Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood, who’s shop SEX McClaren described as “a haven for the disenfranchised that, in turn, helped to create the phenomenon known as punk rock”.
Their aesthetic was born from a completely different set of influences to Michon. Outsider literature and deviant sex were added to the politics of anarchy and teen cults, creating “a single cleansing force that swept aside pop culture’s indulgence and excesses”. The trousers made with restricting straps were inspired by the rubber fetish wear originally sold in SEX, whilst muslin shirts were cut with long sleeves to look like straight jackets. An off-center neck hole and jangling D-rings which quickly became tattered added to the overall look, which was designed to set them apart from the acquiescent society.
|Vivienne Westwood's punk fashion designs.|
Although visually the Punk and Sapeur rebellions could not look more different, both hold the same ideals. Wearers wanted to stand out from the rest of society, purposefully going against what was considered acceptable (or even legal) to demonstrate their contempt for the government. DIY plays a crucial part, as both fashions were brought as a result of relative poverty. New clothes could rarely be afforded and so both groups often made their clothes. The difference is Sapeurs will constantly repair and swap outfits to give an illusion of wealth, whilst punks highlight the wear and tear.
|Sapeur vs Punk rebellion|
I feel the reason behind this may lie in the differing cultural aspirations and rich/poor divide in each of these countries.
The Congo is extremely rich in natural resources, however throughout history this has been controlled by corrupt powers:
Following Congolese independence in 1960, Joseph Mobutu controlled much of the country, using the riches to ensure he remained in power. Despite this the country gradually slipped out of his control, helped along by the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
After Rwanda's genocidal Hutu regime was overthrown, more than two million Hutus are thought to have fled into DR Congo. This included many of the militiamen responsible for the genocide, who quickly allied themselves with Mobutu’s government.
Rwanda’s new Tutsi government fought against the Congolese and Hutu milita troops, eventually overthrowing Mobutu’s government. For the next six years the Congo war fought over by African countries, all of whom were accused of using the war as cover in order to steal the countries riches. During this time more than 5 million people died.
|Life during the 6 years of war|
As a result of this there is a very large rich/poor divide: even during the French rule, money has always been reserved for those in power, leaving the rest of population impoverished. Unlike in Britain there is no social mobility, no possibility to work your way out poverty. As a result the Sapeurs rebellion is based far more in fantasy– dressing like rich men is a form of escapism, for the most part unachievable in reality. In contrast Punk's would highlight their lower class status, publicising it through fashion and shouting about it through music so that it was made impossible for the government to continue to ignore the problems they faced. Change was possible and if the government didn't allow it democracy stated they could be voted out.
It was a vocal and violent rebellion, aimed to amass media coverage in order to become as wide reaching as possible. The more people across Britain who knew, the more could join the movement and the more significant the impact would be. All they stood to lose was a good reputation in civilised society and the trust of the police. In contrast, the recent history of persecution and violence in the Congo means that the Sapeurs’ must lead a peaceful protest. Threatening behaviour or sympathising with a particular government would be unwise as “tomorrow there might be another election or even a coup and they want to remain totally autonomous.” The risk is far higher. Mistrust from the government is unlikely to lead to a night spent in a cell; instead the penalty could be death.