Tuesday, March 8, 2011

CYL:The Roving Roma

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)
Historical Background
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
One of the major traits of the Roma people is a general sense of xenophobia towards non-Roma, who are traditionally referred to as gadjo or gadje. After centuries of diaspora and slavery... I think they're allowed. This distrust of outsiders was cemented in the belief in a hygienic and social code called marhime, which was derived from old Hindu practices of the Rigveda. Marhime literally means 'unclean' and was given as a label to objects and individuals that should be avoided by Roma society to avoid contamination. Dead bodies were marhime, as were marriages between Roma women and gadjo men, as well as women who had just given birth for over a month afterwards. However, eating from a dirty table or not washing your hands before you eat was also considered unclean... and a step up from their gadje counterparts in prior centuries.

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)
Debunking a Few Fashion Myths
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?)
The clothing of Roma could often be very colorful, particularly amongst traditionally performing bands like the Sinti and Manush as it could attract the attention of crowds. In addition to this, embroidery, beading, and other embellishment was popular to give old or secondhand clothes more pizazz or value. Primary red was avoided however, particularly in garments covering the lower body as this was visually linked with the color of blood, which was marhime.

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)
So What Did Roma Wear?
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

Helpful Links
-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...


  1. Great info thanks I love the gyspy wear and vans How Id love a van like they had.

  2. What a wonderfully well-written post!

    You manage to cover an impressing number of relevant aspects while keeping it at a reasonable length, providing just the right amount of info that the rest of us will be quite well equipped to sort out the worst/faulty sources when continuing our own research.

    Thank you for taking the time.

  3. How timely! I did Romany for the GLLC (video coming when my voice returns), and this is a wonderful post. Love the pics!

  4. Is it just me or did pirates(as most know them) take a lesson from these guys?

  5. My one regret is that I never took Romani as a language when I could have...

  6. Ooooh, all the lace-trimmed blouses on the ladies in the picture from Russia would be so delightful for steampunk!

    Thank you for a great post -- it's good to have this info so that if I do want to do a Roma-inspired costume by repurposing my belly dance garb, I can try to avoid being offensive by being properly covered!

  7. When I was younger, and went back to Ireland I would sometimes see some Travelers who still used the old vardos. Coming upon them in a small lane or a boithrin it would always make me feel like I had stepped into another world. Haven't seen one for a long time now. Partly because it has been a while since I was back. Partly because most of the Travelers have RVs or trailers (properly called caravans:-) and are restricted to the halting sites now.

  8. Lovely posting, as always! I've found it very hard to find good resources on the actual Romani culture (despite being part Rom myself, waaay back) and this has given me some excellent ideas for my Roma-inspired costume for The Great New England Exhibition.
    Thanks a bunch, and I'll make sure to send some pictures of my cosplay once it's done. ;)

  9. What an excellent post. So glad to see that you sited Patrin and the "Pariah Syndrome." If you get a chance, contact Dr. Hancock. I believe he still teaches at the University of Texas at Austin in the Linguistics department. He keeps an archive of Rroma related writing and I think he would be interested in what you have written here. Beyond that he just one of the most interesting individuals I've ever had the pleasure to meet. Quite the linguist too!

    @Guy, the Irish Travelers are often mixed up into the same ethnic group as the Rroma but they are not in fact the same. Both groups have an interesting history. Both have suffered a great deal of persecution but their origins are not the same. The Irish Travelers speak Shelta and there is some interesting debate/discussion on their origins in the British Isles. The Rroma come from much, much further east and speak Rromani which bears no relationship to Shelta except that they are both Indo-European.

    Apologies for the very long reply. Sometimes I was once very passionate about.

  10. Amazing post! Thank you!

    I am Gaucho/tsigini roma / Choctaw AmerInd by heritage and upbringing. You covered most of my pet peeves.

    I would add that the head scarf is called a diklo when it is tied tightly and a shlieva (I don't know how to spell that one ;) when worn loose or draped on the shoulder.

    Everything within a Romi outfit tells other Rom something about the wearer. The diklo says "I'm working" The shlieva says "this is a false modestly because it is expected," ie can be wrapped tight quickly if need be.

    Another point on womens' dress and styles: it is very unlucky to show straight lines - cleavage, the legs pressed together above the knees, armpit meeting arm, a clean part line on your hair, etc. Straight lines are said to invite a knife or betrayal and showing cleavage invites a pierced (broken) heart......

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  12. What a great post! Apologies for deleting my comment and reposting. I was aiming for deleting something on another blog and had too many windows up.

    Thankyou for not encouraging inappropriate displays of body or portraying us as thieves. I generally detest any use of us in role play but I would say that what you are describing is "doing it right" because it is not disrespectful and you are encouraging people to learn about us. Patrin is the best place to go.

    This thankyou comes from a Rromano who is also has been a Steampunker since before the term "Steampunk."

  13. Great stuff I like the way you got to the facts especially about the marhime subject and the humility between the men and women , but you forgot to mention one of the largest Roma group the lovara which literally means horse trader ...again gypsys are very touchy when it comes to being clean in every sense of the word , respect to elders again a very big issue in the Roma culture if people would take a closer look gypsys are very respectable and pride of there ways and language never written but it has been spoken for thousands of years and it has never been forgotten neither there ways that's something to respect and keep sacrite