Identity in clothing


03 Oct 2016 27 Feb 2017

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The work of Alison Lurie (Lurie, 1983) “The Language of Clothes” and Didier Gondola’s (Gondola, 2010) “La Sape Exposed! High Fashion among Lower-Class Congolese Youth” will be discussed in order to examine the concept of creating an identity through fashion. The first idea of discussion is Lurie’s concept (Lurie, 1983: 6) “Colour and Conformity”. Secondly Gondola’s comments on the Sapeurs. The third paragraph, applying the Lurie concept of Colour and Conformity to the Sapeurs and lastly the Colour and Conformity of Lurie, applied to the Smarteez. Lurie states (Lurie, 1983: 1) “Today, as semiotics become fashionable, sociologists tell us that fashion too is a language of signs, a nonverbal system of communication”. In Gondola and Corrigall’s articles, they discuss the way the sub-culture groups, Sapeurs and Smarteez used extravagant, colourful fashion to rise above their challenged, impoverished circumstances to create a flamboyant identity.

Lurie’s (1983) article “The Language of Clothes” argues that wearing clothes is a form of language interpreted by all. Lurie states (Lurie, 1983:1) “…human beings have communicated with one another first in the language of dress…” In the section “Colour and conformity” Lurie mentions that psychologists discovered, looking at different colours may alternate our vital signs and emotions (Lurie, 1983: 1). Lurie justifies this by claiming that when someone is approached, the first thing that occupies the visual field is the colour of clothing having a great effect on the nervous system. (Lurie, 1983:2) “Loud, clashing colours, like loud noises […] may actually hurt our eyes or give us a headache…”. This implies that (Lurie, 1983:2) “Colour in dress is also like tone of voice in speech…”. A white evening dress communicates a different message than a scarlet one. (Lurie, 1983:2) According to Lurie (Lurie, 1983:3) “Convention alters the meaning of colours according to the place and time at which they are worn.” The corporate environment requires conventional dress code to communicate status, but the same people would wear colourful eveningwear, suggesting that not dressing in the recognized range of colour for given situations, attracts unfavorable attention. To the Sapeurs, making an immediate impact with their colourful clothing was of greater importance than the attention they received.



In his article “La Sape Exposed! High Fashion Among Lower-Class Congolese Youth” (Gondola, 2010: 157) Gondola comments on the Sapeurs, the oppression faced and the new identity created in response to that. French colonialism brought to Africa, a mission to civilize the people. Gondola states (Gondola, 2010: 158) “…their mission civilisatrice was predicated on redeeming […] “primitive minds”[…] “primitive bodies” of the “naked people”. During the 1920s, the word sape(dress) and se saper (to dress fashionably) was used to describe the fashion energy that characterized Parisian socialites. (Gondola, 2010: 158) They influenced the young Sapeurs to dress fashionably, even over dress. Gondola comments (Gondola, 2010: 160) “…Congolese houseboys spurned their masters secondhand clothes […] spending their meager wages extravagantly to acquire the latest fashions from Paris”. After independence of the Congo’s in 1960, young Congolese flocked to Europe, because of economic chaos. Their dreams of a new life hindered by discrimination. Gondola argues (Gondola, 2010: 165) “…la sape became a refuge that enabled them to forge new identities away from home…” Gondola’s writing highlights that the sapeurs overcame their struggles by allowing fashion to be the essence of their identity through the use of vibrant suits.

(, 2015) “Within this society, men are encouraged to have their own sense of style, bringing an individualised definition of sophistication and elegance that suits each character and enriches the group as a whole”. This image of the Sapeurs is an example of Gondala’s comment (Gondola, 2010: 158) “One could easily spot them strolling down the boulevards […] in expensive and flamboyant attire”. Combining a maximum of three colours was their idea of perfection. (Michalon, 2015) “The ways of Sapeology are impenetrable for any Sapeologist who does not know the rule of 3: a trilogy of finished and unfinished colours”. They had to know the rules of elegance, which implied matching colours harmoniusly without being excessive. (Gondola, 2010) The loud and striking message the Sapeurs portray in this image does not have a negative effect, as Lurie implies (Lurie, 1983: 2) because of their stylish matching of colours. Like the Sapeurs overcame their obstacles through their fashion identity, the Smarteez also formed an identity through their excessive colourful attire.



In her article “AGAINST THE MACHINE: THE ‘SMARTEEZ’ FASHION A NEW POST-APARTHEID IDENTITY” Mary Corrigall writes about the Smarteez (Corrigall, 2011: 2) “a youth-driven street fashion sub-culture”. The image of the group above reflects their striking outfits. (Corrigall, 2011: 2) “The Smarteez outfits are garish and excessively colourful and thus immediately recognisable as in the vein of dandyism in which the subjects appear like costumed objects”. Lurie argues (Lurie, 1983: 4) “ some people may avoid colours they like because of the belief […] that they are unbecoming, while others may wear colours they dislike for symbolic reasons”. The defining feature of the Smarteez was combining primary colours in their outfits, referring to their name,“ a bright sugar-coated chocolate confection”. (Corrigall, 2011: 3) The name smart refers to their formal wear and intellectual acuity. (Corrigall, 2011: 3) “…the Smarteez attire is a parody of the middle class values”. According to Lurie (Lurie, 1983: 1) “…dress is a continual manifestation of intimate thoughts, a language and a symbol.” Rejecting those who did not wear brightly coloured clothes. Therefore they set out to create their own unique identity.

The aim of this essay was to assess Lurie’s (1983) “The Language of Clothes”, specifically her discussion of “Colour and Conformity” and Didier Gondola’s (Gondola, 2010) “La Sape Exposed! […] Congolese Youth” by examining the concept of creating identity through fashion. Lurie comments on clothing as a language that communicates. Using colour attracts favorable or unfavorable attention. The Sapeurs created an accomplished and wealthy identity through colourful clothing, their flamboyance making immediate impact. The Smarteez valued their brightly coloured clothing to the extent of rejecting those that did not conform. Therefore these subcultural groups rose above their struggles by creating new identities through fashion.


Gondola, D. (2010) 'La Sape Exposed! High Fashion among Lower-Class Congolese Youth'. Gott, S.L.K. (ed.) Contemporary African Fashion, 1st edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lurie, A. (1983) The Language of clothes, Random House Inc.

Leroux, D. (2014) Forget the hipster fashion, preppy, preppy golden swag. Nothing compares to the Fire of Congo, 11 Nov, [Online], Available: [24 May 2015].

Edsuter (2015) The Smarteez | Ed Suter, [Online], Available: [24 May 2015]. (2015) Sapeurs: The creativity of African fashionistas | OBV, [Online], Available: [24 May 2015].

Michalon, N. (2015) Sussing out "La Sape": fashion, science or religion? -, 07 Apr, [Online], Available: [24 May 2015].

Corrigall, M. (2011) 'Against the Machine: The 'Smarteez' Fashion a new post-apartheid identity', Fashion Conference, Oxford, 1-4.



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