PARIS - From porcupine hats worn once-upon-a-time to bright silk socks and garters today, men it seems love dressing up.
Featuring old Papua New Guinea necklaces of human teeth and ivory nose-rings as well as the extravagant designer suits paraded in poor Congo by today's "sapeur" movement, a show opening Thursday in Paris revisits men's finery through the ages.
In Brazzaville and Kinshasa, as well as in the slums of Paris and Brussels, men who barely eke out a living have been forking out their savings since the 80s on the most luxurious, elegant and expensive menswear on the market.
The craze known as "Le Sape" was introduced by pop star Papa Wemba's throwback at the time to a look of 1930s elegance -- tapered trousers, brogues, trimmed hair and tweed hats worn at a rakish angle -- but in a wider brighter range of colors.
"We have always liked to dress up," said Jean-Marc Zyttha-Allony, a 56-year-old follower who believes the movement is here to stay. "My passion is to be noticed."
Corsets, beads, and penis sheaves?
Photos and video clips of rival sapeurs doing battle, flashing labels and stripping down to their silks socks and underwear, are on view at the show at Paris' Dapper museum, titled "The Art of Being A Man, Africa, Oceania."
"The sapeurs underline contemporary man's taste for finery," said curator Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau. "They revisit the western suit through African eyes."
One non-sapeur fashionista visitor, a tall pony-tailed African in a red tartan skirt carrying a helmet, was stunned by an old Dinka corset from Sudan, a torso-sized piece made of red beads, metal and fiber.
"It just shows," he said. "Men's corsets are now coming back in fashion yet existed long ago."
From corsets to penis sheaves from the Pacific, as well as pendants, ear-rings, nose-rings and bracelets, the exhibition running until July 2010 brings together some 150 pieces from specialist museums from across the world.
"These objects help show how men develop their male identity," said the curator. "Some were used in sexual and social rituals or to provide protection, others were worn to show a man's status, or underline his position through finery."
The porcupine hat from Cameroon accessorizes a porcupine tunic, highlighting the sacred impact of different animals or materials in different societies.
Other show-stopper head-pieces include hats in cat-teeth, tiny antelope horns or scaly anteater and leopard-skin.
Hair-cuts too vary from place to place as does body art practised to accompany mutilation and circumcision rites. Details on www.dapper.com.fr