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Romani Fashion and the Politics of Dressing 'Gypsy'
I was never allowed to look like a Gypsy. My mother wasn't allowed to look like a Gypsy, either. She and the rest of her family had to blend in with the rest of the small New England mill town where they had settled. And my grandmother definitely wasn't allowed to look like a Gypsy. She grew up in Germany, where she and her family kept their heritage quiet, and managed to evade the fate of the 1 to 2 million Gypsies taken by the Holocaust.
Romani is the correct term for the ethnic group which is most often inaccurately, and sometimes offensively, referred to as “Gypsy.” (Fun pronunciation tip: Romani rhymes with hominy.) Romanies typically keep a clandestine culture, because as my grandmother puts it, “there is no good time or place to be a Gypsy.” Historically, Romanies have been oppressed, and are still oppressed, through institutionalized racism, ghettoized communities, hate crime and anti-Romani political movements worldwide.
Traditionally, Romani women don’t cut their hair and as a little girl I took a lot of pride in my waist-length coiffure. I wanted to braid it and wrap it up in the dainty dikhle that my grandmother brought with her to the U.S. from Germany. A Romani woman only wears a dihklo (a full headscarf) when she’s married, but that wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t encouraged to wear one. I was cautioned not to tell anyone about my heritage, and I certainly wasn't encouraged to dress traditionally. This was a struggle for me: I love my heritage and I love fashion, and like most kids, I loved doing whatever I wasn’t allowed to do.
When my grandmother showed me the pre-war portrait her great-grandmother, my great-great grandmother, Matilde von Theile, I was mesmerized. Matilde, like all the Romani women in our family, was a dancer and a fortune teller, and she wore her dancing clothes for the portrait—a modest blouse, a wide leather waist-cincher, a full circle skirt and thin shoes of brushed leather. I wanted to wear Matilde’s necklace, a long rope of green glass beads, another heirloom that my grandmother brought with her, and pair it with a silk patterned apron over layered ankle-grazing skirts, one of lace, and one of soft, colorful cotton. “Our ancestors were river Gypsies,” she told me. “They sailed up and down the Danube, from Germany to Hungary and back again in barges, making money by dancing and telling fortunes in the river towns.” She made it sound so beautifully idyllic—it was a beauty she hadn’t experienced, born just before the war began, but in truth, the stories are much prettier than the reality. Romani have been violently persecuted since the ancestors left India in the 11th century.
But I didn’t know that then. I knew I had a gorgeous great-great grandmother and that I learned to read palms because she did. My grandmother told me I was born to be a dancer. To me, that meant wearing lots of lovely clothes. It was my birthright, after all. I was born for them, and I dreamed of river barges and towns that might sing as I came. I came into the habit of buying pretty scraps of fabric at the department store and, unable to actually sew, wrapping myself up in my room and practicing dance steps my grandmother taught me while humming Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing.” It didn’t look great, but I enjoyed myself.
As a pre-teen and teenager, I read Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Seventeen, meticulously crafting my outfits for school. I took great joy in combining colors, patterns, and textures with a derring-do that offended quite a few peers in my tiny, northeastern town. I dedicated myself to Romani fusion fashion—Double-floral skirt with a leather jacket? Yes. Kohl-lined eyes and red lipstick? Absolutely. I haven’t changed much. I still pair my grandmother’s green and cerulean dikhlo with a floor-length turquoise Mexican wedding dress embellished by lace detail, when the occasion calls for it.
But my enthusiasm is complicated by nostalgia and privilege: I did not grow up with a strict Romani dress code, so I approach Romani fashion with a sense of longing, love and nostalgia as opposed to necessity. Because of my mixed-race, mixed-culture home, it is my privilege and choice to reclaim my ancestors’ dress, but for Romani women who grew up in a traditional household, a long skirt and a dikhlo are essential and it would be myopic to call dressing in these items a ‘choice.’ It’s simply Romanipen, the Romani way, a powerful and important part of the culture and cultural identity, much like the Muslim or Sikh hijab. To defy Romanipen is to abandon yourself and your ancestors, which should put the sacrifices my ancestors made during the war in perspective. Many Romani women during WWII, persecuted because of their ethnicity, continued to wear their dikhle even in concentration camps. That’s how important fashion is: clothing the self has deep artistic, cultural, spiritual, and ritual meaning. Some women, such as Romani activist and blogger goldenzephyr, publicly reclaim the dikhlo as a statement of Romani pride. She isn’t permitted to wear her dikhlo at work, but she uses her Tumblr to educate others about Romani fashion culture, cultural appropriation, and to model and feature beautiful dihkle.
Beneath my enthusiasm roils the unsettling understanding that traditional Romani fashions disclose our identity not only to members of our own community but to a wider, less tolerant community. Even when I was a sheltered child I knew that the days of persecution are not over. Today, in the U.S., when I wear a dikhlo and a full skirt I get strange looks, averted eyes, or someone asking me if they can take a picture of me in my “costume,” at the very worst. That’s still not great, though. When I was a child, I was stoned once when I was six, and accused of “witchcraft” by my fifth grade (Social Studies) teacher Mr. Martin. That’s a bit worse. The point is, gadjé, or non-Romani people, can “dress-up Gypsy” for a day with no serious repercussions, but when a Romani person dresses in traditional clothing, or even the semblance of it, the response can be brutal. I did not grow up in a Romani community targeted by skinheads, Gypsy-hating Jobbiks, and everyday antigypsyists, lobbing Molotov cocktails at my settlement, murdering my family and neighbors, setting my life ablaze, curtailing my rights, suppressing my entire existence, but many, many Romani do, even in the so-called “developed countries.” This is not progress.
This is why I got particularly angry with Vogue one day. I’m no fool—I love Vogue, but I know their track-record with handling culturally sensitive issues. Nonetheless, I was hopeful when Vogue ran a Gypsy fashion photo-spread. I had recently seen an interview with Erika Varga, Hungary’s first Romani fashion designer, in a news article so it wasn’t completely unreasonable to imagine that Vogue might take another look at “Gypsy Fashion” by featuring the only haute couture Romani fashion house in the world, Romani Design. But hope was soon replaced by a familiar nausea, followed by cold rage as I flipped through the luxurious swamp of pages to the spread sans Varga. Sure enough, the familiarly offensive Sexy Gypsy stereotype rose up from the pages of “Summer of Love" (April 2012), stomping on progress in her bare feet to the beat of a tacky tambourine.
The opening sidebar quips, “Gypsy:...model Raquel Zimmerman...does her best Stevie Nicks, wearing an opening-at-the-opera dress with barefoot abandon.” In one frame, the blond Zimmerman is in a wisp of a bellyshirt, grabbing a guy’s face and leaning in with her chin jutted, somewhere between a kiss and a snarl, with her eyes lowered to a seductive half-mast. Beautiful models safely play the part with a diverse assembly of model-children. They lie in the grass, dance with tambourines (not even a traditional instrument!), bond with horses, and look meaningfully into the distance under the broad brims of misshapen hats. The titles of the purchase details are loaded with 1960s hippie lyrics, from Jimi Hendrix to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. “The Earth says 'Hello'” to the free-wheeling, free-spirit Sexy Gypsy, as Vogue says goodbye to even a vague sense of social-racial awareness. I know, I hoped for too much.
I wrote a Letter to the Editor expressing my concerns:
I am annoyed by the “Summer of Love" photo-spread (April 2012) for a few reasons. “Gypsy” is an inaccurate and often derogatory term for Romani, a nomadic, ethnic group that originated in India around the 11th century and spread across Europe. Romani people live on almost every continent, and still we have to fight for our rights, still we are not recognized, and still our ethnicity is exploited and depicted as mythical caricatures ranging from baby-stealing criminals to sexy "boho-mamas." Romani people have a history of persecution, reaching back before the Holocaust, or as we refer to it, O Porrajmos (The Great Devouring) in which 2 million Roma were exterminated, a tragic act of genocide which directly impacted my relatives. Roma are still targeted by fascists, attacked, deported, murdered, and denied health care, basic housing, and safety. In America, I have witnessed well-meaning people thoughtlessly complain that they were “gypped” when they were given a bad deal, complain about “filthy gypsies,” or use the word "gypsy" to describe hyper-sexualized women. In Europe, the shops I worked in had no-Roma policies, and I had to keep my mouth shut to keep my job. Do you know one of the ways that people can tell that I'm Romani? Clothing. Traditional clothing is a political issue. When I dress traditionally, I am more vulnerable to bigotry, prejudice, and violence. When I dress like the gadjé (non-Romanies), I feel that I deny my roots. My mixed ethnicity, education and location all afford me privileges that other Romanies don’t have—not everyone can hide from enduring prejudice. I love Vogue, and I was disappointed to see my ethnicity fetishized in this way, and the real issue of “looking Romani" completely overlooked.
My hopes rose higher for my chance to speak when I received this response from Vogue: “Thank you for taking the time to send a letter to VOGUE. After careful consideration, we have decided that we are interested in possibly publishing your letter in our Talking Back section.”
But, when the time came for my letter, or a part of my letter, to appear, instead there was a letter from another reader about how great J-Lo looked in that red dress.
I’ve met a surprising number of otherwise well-informed people who believed that “Gypsies” are fantasy creatures, like fairies or mermaids, and not real at all. But why should that be surprising? The media so rarely presents Romani as real people, and Vogue won’t even find page-space to print a letter commenting on that fact. In pop culture ‘Gypsies’ are a rag-tag band of dreamers and hardened criminals with no morals, no culture, and no place in society. The Sexy Gypsy is the “It” Gypsy of the fashion industry and you can find her almost everywhere: in literature, film, music, art, and more. Romani linguist and writer, Dr. Ian Hancock, explains in The ‘Gypsy’ stereotype and the sexualization of Romani women that the Sexy Gypsy is an exotic archetype made purely from the stuff of escapist Western fantasy. She’s an idolized and objectified free spirit wrapped up in fetish-wear, commodified in haute couture photoshoots to revealing and racist Halloween costumes. Run a search for the word Gypsy, Hancock suggests, on Ebay, Etsy, or Amazon, and all manner of “Gypsy” garb will flood the screen, waiting to kit you out like a skimpy pirate-pinup, with tags like sexy, hippie, fantasy, wench to help you find more. Her history is dark though—she’s born from the centuries of oppression, exploitation, and sexual slavery in Europe and the Americas, and we don’t learn about this in school or in the papers. Instead, the Sexy Gypsy and other harmful stereotypes splash out from fashion magazines to the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times, sources that are otherwise at least moderately trusted to be inform and culture the masses, so who are we supposed to trust?
The problem with romanticizing, demonizing, mythologizing any ethnic group is that they cease to be human. Imaginary sex pots, fanciful harlots, and cartoonish baby-stealing villains don’t need human rights. Instead of marches in the street, we have a fashion-parade of dehumanizing stereotypes while the Roma’s basic rights that are routinely violated by their home countries, political extremists, and institutions with discriminatory policies. This kind of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation diminishes the Romani human rights crisis and we are all too aware of our history to plead innocence—we know that dehumanization makes it much easier to ignore, expel, and exterminate the oppressed. And the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary is striving to do just that by committing hate-crimes against the Roma and storming Romani encampments. And the Jobbik party won 15 percent of the vote with that platform! It’s not just Hungary struggling with hate-crimes, segregation, and prejudice—Amnesty International calls the treatment of Romanies “Europe’s shame.” The U.S. isn’t immune either: antigypsism is still socially acceptable to the point that I’ve heard professors use the racial slur “gyp” (as in, “that cashier gypped me”) in class like it was nothing. Those same professors certainly wouldn’t say, “I jewed her down” as comfortably. Most of the people I’ve spoken to (gently, I hope) about using that slur didn’t know it was a racial slur at all. That’s how normalized antigypsyism has become in our society.
Whenever I see anything related to “Gypsy style,” I race to the article, praying, please be good, please be well-researched, please be real. So far, I have not found the holy grail of Romani fashion articles. Instead, I have seen the Sexy Gypsy. I have seen Kate Moss in a caravan, wrapped in a flowing blouse and baring a breast in a trashy U.K. tabloid. I have seen white girls on Tumblr making coy duck faces from under their scarves and tagging their selfies “Gypsy fashion” and claiming “Gypsy souls.” I have seen Pinterest boards glittering with daisies and half-naked women in fields, stamped with a quote about freedom, which doesn’t apply to actual Gypsies because of bullshit like this. I have seen the best minds of my generation taken in by this farce. If this is going to change then we, as united consumers, must demand that change.
That’s why I was elated when Christine Stoddard invited me to be the poet and model for Quail Bell Magazine's August 2013 Photo Tale, “Free Spirits,” featuring Romani-American fusion fashion, all vintage finds from The Other Side and family heirlooms, shot in Wakullah, Florida. That’s where a park ranger asked if she could take a picture of me in my “costume,” and here is the shameful part: I was too uncomfortable, too worried of what might or might not happen if I started talking about “Gypsies” so I didn’t tell her, “This isn’t a costume, this is traditional Romani dress. This dikhlo is my grandmother’s….” I said nothing; I smiled. Even for mixed-race untraditional girls, even though I teach a class on Romani arts, culture and creative writing at Florida State University, the fear runs deep. Out of my academic safety-dome, I was afraid. I’m not the only one. Most Romani in the workforce are forced to hide their ethnicity in order to assimilate and don’t have the option to “come-out,” for fear of the persecution that would follow. Who can risk losing a job, apartment, or a life over a fashion article? Or a conversation? Again, I am lucky and privileged. I’ve been able to make these dialogues part of my job. That wasn’t always the case though—I briefly lived in Europe during the recession and worked in a charity shop, and there was no way I could talk about my ethnicity and keep my job. The experience inspired the story “We Rise Up (Opre Roma)” in Narrative Magazine.
As you can imagine, I channeled Erika Varga, the creator of Romani Design Studio, for the shoot. Varga’s stunning haute couture Romani-Hungarian fusion ensembles are born out of her loving message of tolerance, inclusion, and celebration— in short, she’s the kind of Romani fashionista that I can get behind. Her lines echo familiar Romani elements, and yet pair so perfectly with cosmopolitan Hungarian style. Traditional Romani clothing, for women, consists of conservative cuts and a lot of layers—long skirts, long-sleeved blouses, aprons and shawls— rich in colors and patterns. Varga’s designs, sometimes with daring necklines or shorter skirts, play with that cultural limbo that many Romanies find themselves in—a continuous mediation between tradition and the gadjé mainstream. A handkerchief-cut yellow, silk print apron is draped over a black, gauzy floor-length halter-dress that floats around the model’s ankles. Textures and color pop on a sleek and wearable palate, and patterns flutter with real cultural depth. In an interview with The Gypsy Chronicles Varga writes, “We use the most significant Gypsy luck symbols and motifs in jewel making: lentils, clovers, horseshoes, roses, the sun and the moon.” My inner-child is dizzy with joy. I’m trying to figure out how to order online at RomaniDesign.hu while simultaneously watching the next few models tear up the runway.
And who among us could help but be moved by Varga’s artistic vision, shared with effusive warmth in an interview at her fashion show in Budapest:
"I see the human body as a homeland which has different parts. Different groups, cultures, and communities of people are all part of the same body, part of the same motherland, which applies to the Roma culture, and the Hungarian one as well. With my dresses, I would like to show that these two parts can fit very well together on one body."
Varga’s celebration of Romani and gadjé fashion extends to the models too: a mix of Hungarian runway models and local Romani women, most with no prior modeling experience, grace the runway together in Varga’s creations. Her work is the beautiful antidote to the Sexy Gypsy attack. She creates pieces that speak to both cultures and addresses her humanitarian message to all. She lives in the spirit of Opre Roma, (Roma rise up). The next step, though, is finding Varga in a major fashion magazine during the next “Gypsy” trend.
Varga’s vision of coexistence needn’t be so difficult to achieve. Romanies have values like any other people: work hard, be honest, be modest, be good to each other, act with love—values that most communities would recognize, Romani or otherwise. And, like everyone else, the culture is made up of individuals, and as such, expressed individually. For some, that means living more traditionally and keeping to themselves, and for others it means navigating between gadjé and Romani culture, two cultures that are often in opposition to each other.
But the cultural oppositions between Romani and gadjé are exaggerated and misconstrued even more with the appearance of “Gypsy reality television.” The ‘uniform’ of the Sexy Gypsy in particular has earned a lot of attention because of shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, uniforms that Torie Bosch calls “extreme conservatism in slutty clothing,” in her culturally ignorant article in Slate, forebodingly titled “The Gypsies are Coming to America.” These shows feature Traveler and Romanichal families, and occasionally Romani families, all of which are distinct ethnicities and cultures, and (mis)represent them as one homogenous group of misogynistic, scantily-clad, alcoholic simpletons. This portrait alone is disturbing, but even more disturbing is the number of viewers watching this trashy-mockery as though it were a documentary on “Gypsy” culture instead of what it actually is—another crazy reality show that’s no more “real” than The Jersey Shore. But the shows claim to give viewers a glimpse into “real Gypsy life,” and with a truth-claim like that, well, maybe the drama is too exciting to resist. Even one of my past colleagues announced (via Facebook) that Gypsy culture is “backwards” and drew her conclusions from her tireless dedication to a My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding marathon. This is an otherwise intelligent and well-informed woman, a teacher, a self-proclaimed feminist, not someone I expected to the regurgitate TLC’s bigotry.
Therein lies the problem. Outsiders tend to think they understand us because they are inundated with Gypsy stereotype after Gypsy stereotype used to sell an image, a product, an ideology, or a way of life. But Romani culture is none of those things, and reducing a diverse ethnic group to The Sexy Gypsy, The Drunken Gypsy, The Thieving Gypsy, or any of the other favored stereotypes, is dangerous. Romani writer Oksana Marafioti responded to Bosch’s article with “Why TLC’s My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding Doesn’t Represent the Romani,” also in Slate. Marafioti writes, “We aren’t Gypsy by choice or calling. No one can decide to become a Gypsy one day…It is one thing to present a willing group of people in a negative light, but quite another to represent an entire race of people as a niche stereotype.” It’s essential that Romani writers speak up in their blogs, in articles, on Tumblr and Twitter—anonymously or “out.” Those visible Romani professionals like Erika Varga, Oksana Marfioti, Morgan Ahern, Dr. Ian Hancock, and many others act as cultural ambassadors and use their voices for good, while organizations like Lolo Diklo: Romani Against Racism, International Romani Union, World Roma Organization, Roma Woman, and others do incredible work to unite and empower the Romani community from within and educate others.
The voice of privilege is often the loudest voice. It’s the uncomfortable truth that compels me to scare lecture my students about the privilege and power that their education affords them and the burden responsibility of that power. A truly empowered person uses their power to improve the lives of their brothers and sisters. It doesn’t help anyone to be silent. Overwhelmingly, my friends, colleagues, and students are interested in Romani culture and human rights and have loving, intelligent, and insightful discussions about the social issues. I’m lucky and privileged there, too. They give me enormous hope and prove that, aside from the moral issues surrounding cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, it would be much more interesting for everyone concerned to read about what contemporary Romani women wear in a small town in Slovenia as well as what they’re rocking in the office or studio in New York. And despite being burned before, my fashion-loving heart still wishes to see Romani women grace the pages of Vogue in Romani haute couture matched with stories and articles that are smart, culturally aware, insightful, and most of all, human.