Social movements and fashion converge in a senior thesis

Clark Honors College senior Hannah Steinkopf-Frank loves fashion. Even following sleepless nights spent studying — when most students wear a uniform of sweatpants and hoodies — she can be seen making her way to Allen Hall in an outfit that is nothing less than stylish.

Steinkopf-Frank, who is majoring in journalism and international studies with a minor in African studies, first learned about the fashion movement le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, otherwise known as la Sape, in a French class and decided to make it the topic of her thesis. The acronym for the group also coincides with the French slang word for attire.

For Sapeurs, clad in three-piece suits or lavish designer brands like the Japanese-based Comme des Garçons, spending their money on clothes as opposed to basic necessities is a way of life. Regardless of their approach, members of la Sape are widely known for their mastery in combining elegant colors, patterns and textiles when creating outfits.

Steinkopf-Frank spent two weeks in Paris and one week in Brussels this past January to travel and conduct on-the-ground research around the movement. Her objective: to learn more about the history behind la Sape, a movement heavily influenced by colonialism in the francophone African nations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, and which has spread to diaspora communities in Paris and Brussels.

Clothes carry significant meaning not just for the Sapeurs but for cultures around the world.

“The differences in how people dress can reveal so much about their history, culture and where they come from,” Steinkopf-Frank said.

That's why she's so passionate about her topic. The combination of her interests in fashion along with her studies at UO were a perfect fit for uncovering more about la Sape’s community and the movement behind it.

Steinkopf-Frank approached her research in three parts. First, she researched the history of the Congos, both colonial and postcolonial, as well as reviewed existing work on the la Sape movement, including articles, photographic documentation and even fiction incorporating la Sape characters. While pursuing this research she also began to reach out to contacts abroad, including members of the la Sape movement, to schedule interviews and arrange the details of her trip. Last but not least, she conducted field research by traveling 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

Conducting research abroad was a vital part of Steinkopf-Frank’s Thesis process; every single day she learned something new or surprising about la Sape and the movement behind it. She believes “it can be easy to be centralized on our country, region, state or city, but if we can get out of that bubble we can become aware of some really incredible issues.”

While that may sound daunting, a significant amount of time went into planning her trip. As far as logistics behind traveling internationally go, Steinkopf-Frank couldn’t have done it without grants she received through the Clark Honors College as well as through her general scholarship. Between the two she was able to have all of her costs abroad covered.

Not everything went according to plan. Steinkopf-Frank’s original idea was to go to Africa, then to France and Belgium; however, due to political instability in Central Africa the trip was impractical. Having to rethink her strategy, she realized she could still do an interesting and even more focused, controlled thesis by just going to Europe. Steinkopf-Frank wants honors college students to not be afraid to change their thesis or feel like they have to start the process knowing exactly what they want to do.

Defining social movements as a singular entity can be a useful clutch; however, such a perspective also overwrites the diverse experiences of the individuals who make up that movement. Steinkopf-Frank’s biggest takeaway from this experience is that when you're writing about a movement it’s also important to highlight the diversity within the community as well as that what unifies it.

Whether it’s walking into the journalism school to attend class or down the streets of France for her thesis research, Steinkopf-Frank has gained a stronger sense of fashion and the impact it has on poeople's lives, domestic and abroad. So next time you get dressed, ask yourself if the clothes you wear say something about you — they may be representative of something you hadn’t considered before.

—By Brooke Harman, Clark Honors College multimedia communications assistant