Gentlemen of Bacongo

Author Daniele Tamagni has just published a book about the fashionable men of Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo.  In an earlier version of this piece I mistakenly associated the Republic of Congo with the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Though they are neighboring countries with similar names, they are different places with different histories.  Though the Republic of Congo is run by a dictator who holds elections with quotation marks around it, its civil war passed 10 years ago.  Not so in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is deep in a civil war that seems to go on with no end, and where atrocities are regularly commited against the civilian population, such as mass rape used as a weapon to spread terror in the civilian population.  But this book isn't about corruption or civil wars.  Its about Dandies.

What is a Dandy?  Charles Baudelaire, credited with being the first to equate modernism with artifice and decadence,  favored decadence and the rule of the self over virtue, which he considered to be outside our natural state and therefore artificial.  He came to value the articulation of fancy for fancy's sake, for being devoid of purpose it would be but an articulation of itself; completely self referential.  This was the Dandy.  For Baudelaire, the Dandy had no "profession other than elegance, no other status but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons...the Dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror (for Baudelaire, Le Grand Mirroir was a hotel he stayed at in Brussels, near the end of his life, where he kept a bat he captured from a graveyard and fed it bread and milk).

The reason for the Dandy was to express disgust for the ruling Aristocracy/Bourgeoisie through appropriating their manner and dress, but emptying it of its meaning through a lack of purpose.  The Dandy had little earned income, often living off inheritance, and lived a life similar to the closely related Bohemian, though arriving at this position of opposition from a very different angle.

Congolese men are said to have returned to Congo from France in the 20's dressed to the hilt, influenced by the fashion driven cult of La Sape, a modern version of the Dandy that favored flamboyance and theatricality.  These men of Brazzaville, dressed beyond their situations, have their origins in this cult of elegance, but in this poor town articulate a very different meaning; these men become lenses of sorts that magnify the poverty of their situation through the presence of their improbability.

photos © Daniele Tamagni

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