|A young Roma performer- 19th c: Svenko|
What do you see when you hear the word gypsy? Colorful caravans of exotic individuals? Life on the road, with no country to call home? Hot, thick music dripping with expression and rhythm? Well, when it comes to "real gypsies", the people known as the Roma (aka Romany/Romani/Rrom) these connotations are not entirely inaccurate... but it's not the whole story.
But don't get depressed! Sure, the Disney-tinted images of "gypsies" with hiked up messes of skirts and opened shirts is... well... wrong, but that doesn't mean that these world travelers were bland in their dress. Why don't we take a look?
|A brightly-colored Roma vardo/wagon from the 19th c. (wapedia)|
The word 'Gypsy' is derived from the old belief that the Roma originally came from Egypt, which is why you won't find it in this article, except when referring to historical texts. Anthropologically, the Roma branched off from peoples who left the Indian Subcontinent around 500 C.E. and made stopoffs in Iran, the Byzantine Empire, and finally made it into the outskirts of Medieval Europe around the 1000 C.E.
As is the case when strange, new people show up in a time of relative discord and misery (Black Death anyone?) the Roma found themselves unwelcome in most areas of Europe. Germany and England enacted laws against Roma residing in the country while Bulgaria and Romania (which today have some of the heaviest concentration of Roma populations) made it legal to enslave them. Towards the 1700s many countries lightened these laws in an effort to get the Roma to settle and become acculturated into the general population... it didn't work terribly well.
|Job and Morenni Smith, a Romanichal couple- 1909. Uni of Liverpool|
The other thing to understand is that (much like Native American tribes) there are many different bands of Roma, typically grouped together by common ancestry or geographic area. For example, the Travelers and Romanichals are primarily found in the British Isles while the Sinti are common to Germany and Italy. The Kalderash flourish in Eastern Europe and Spain and are famed metalworkers. Manouch/Manush work a lot in entertainment (music, dance, animal training) and primarily reside in Francophone countries.
|A young woman offering her services as a fortuneteller: Svenko|
As for this whole fortuneteller schtic- it's a blend of fiction and reality. The Roma were (and still are) superstitious people and had their own ways to divine the future, read omens, or (yes) even curse. However, mainstream Victorian Europeans definitely blew this all out of proportion- but do you know what? It paid the bills. So many Roma women willingly adopted their over-mystified, over-exoticized roles to put food on the table.
|A Roma family arriving at Ellis Island in 1905 (NY Public Library)|
The social and hygienic code of marhime impacted fashion in a fairly big way. If you think about literary or other media portrayals of Roma, you're bombarded with images of scantily clad women with frothy hitched-up skirts. While it's true, Romani women wore fairly voluminous and layered skirts, they were meant to shield their lower body, which was considered unclean under marhime. Needless to say, if you were whipping around advertising your legs, it wasn't particularly flattering to your reputation. Also most Roma weren't ambling about screwing like weasels, contrary to mainstream 19th century literature. Traditional etiquette and social norms meant that girls behaved themselves until betrothal, men didn't run around on their wives, and Alexander Pushkin was full of crap.
The Roma kept their heads covered, typically. Married women would wear a kerchief called a diklo (sort of like a bandanna) tied around there hair to keep it out of the way while they worked. Men were partial to felt caps and hats similar to what mainstream Europeans wore.
|Milos Tchoron, a Galician Kalderash Roma (c. 1915?)|
Speaking of jewelry... This particular stereotype is actually fairly accurate, particularly in the 19th century. Being fairly cautious and xenophobic people for a bloody good reason, Roma didn't care to deal with gadje banks or other financial institutions, so they kept their wealth on them or accessible. Furthermore things like jewelry, trinkets, and pieces of art were preferable to money since they retained their value going place-to-place. To this day there are Roma who'd rather keep their money under their mattress than in a bank, interest rates or not.
|Yipunka Koudaoff, 1914. Note what you can't see: Most of her body... (U. of Liverpool)|
Well... a better question is to ask what didn't they wear? When you're wandering and settling on the fringes of society, you tend to not be too choosy about the clothes you wear. The common trend though, is that the further West and later in the period you go, the more mainstream Victorian Roma clothing becomes. To the point where you see men in full suits resembling that of their working class English or French counterparts.
Traditionally the main garment was the peasant shirt or blouse- a simple shift of cotton or linen that was typically full-fitting and comfortable. These were often showcases for embroidery, particularly in Eastern Europe- even men's shirts were covered in decorative smockwork or designs.
|A 19thc. Romanian blouse decorated with embroidery and sequins, something Roma women could have worn (NY art)|
Men would often show off their style with decorated or ostentatious waistcoats and vests- which could be decorated with embroidery, studs, or metallic embellishments like sequins or buttons. Riding boots were also a staple and well-maintained, considering that the Roma were some of the best breeders of horses in Europe at the time and often showed off at horse fairs such as Appleby in England. Loose trousers were tucked into the boots for ease during riding.
|A Kalderash man in Poland- 1865: Svenko|
Women typically covered up with shawls that varied in richness and were often edged in lace or fringe, which they wrapped around themselves by whim (similar to the kanga cloths we looked at in Africa). Jumper-like dresses similar to Russian sarafans were also worn- because of the proximity to Russia and because the full skirts did an admirable job of covering the lower body. One of the prides of a Roma woman was her hair- which she grew out and took painstaking care of, often setting it in long braids to keep it out of the way.
Roma dress, particular in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, was also influenced by Ottoman modes (for obvious reasons)- such as with wide-legged sirwal or tailored kaftans. There is also a lasting impression of these garments because they were worn for performances or fortune-telling due to their colorful and exotic nature. Bright 'gypsies' were painted or photographed, so that's how they're remembered most.
|A tinted lithograph from 1906 of a Kalderash camp: Svenko|
Why Should You Reflect Roma in Your Steampunk?
- Take a hint from the Kalderash and develop some interesting metal pieces or inventions or your outfit.
- It would be interesting to see a take on a Roma musician and see a steamed up performance outfit or musical instrument.
- Peasant blouses and shirts are cool, comfortable, and look great layered with mainstream Western-inspired clothing or even more Eastern-oriented dress. Remember Anna Velarios from Van Helsing? (Although her use of trousers might be considered somewhat unclean).
-Carry your wealth on you in the form of jewelry; necklaces, bangles, earrings, rings.... it would be a great way to show off your collection of steampunk bijoux.
-Tiered skirts, particularly in various colors, patterns, and treatments can be layered or bustled for a Roma look- just wear them below your knee please...
-The diklo is worn fairly stereotypically in a lot of Halloween 'gypsy' costumes, but it is a good way to add color to your outfit.
- Also please note that belly dancing costumes are not Roma costumes... while they can be inspired by Roma dress, don't run around in an exposed middriff and a coin bra proclaiming your outfit to be Rom, please.
- Romano men too great care in maintaining and showcasing their boots, which included metallic and painted embellishments... sounds pretty familiar, huh?
|Several Roma women in Russia (romakultur).|
|Two young Roma from Bosnia|
|A young Roma dancing out in the desert: Solartraveler|
|A Kalderash man- see the metallic embellishment on his coat? Svenko|
-When studying Roma culture and history, you can do no better than Patrin, a web journal developed and maintained by people of Roma descent to educate the public. There is also the entire text of "The Pariah Syndrome" a book about the history of the persecution of the Roma by Ian Hancock.
- The University of Liverpool is host to an entire collection of "Gypsy Lore", an archive of British Romanichal families during the early 20th century.
- Svenko is a "gypsy" band that has a marvelous website that depicts the history of Roma music, including a collection of paintings and photographs of Roma in their folk and performance dress. I wish I could have posted them all!
- Roma vardos are pieces of art in themselves and are actually making a comeback amongst the camping and small house demographic.... and yes, Miss Kagashi has given thought to traveling to conventions in a vardo...