Dressing like a Gypsy

A Zuihitsu on the Disturbing Triumph of the Imagination

‘Nr. 111. Gitanes-Paris’ 2008 by Ari Versluis & Ellie Uyttenbroek.

THE GYPSY COSTUME THAT won me prizes in school carnivals in the late 1970s and early 1980s had little to do with the family stories my grandmother whispered at bedtime and that filled the night with magic or terror. Truth and fiction switched places so many times, I don’t think even she could tell them apart after a while. On some nights, the gadže (non-Roma/non-Gypsy) burned down her parents’ house, killing her Gypsy father; on other nights, Gypsies burned down her parents’ house, killing her gadže father.1

The process of assembling my outfit out of discarded pleated peasant skirts, flowery scarves, and tacky jewellery felt at least as good as wearing it. It was also a shortcut to articulating my fear of uniformity and of the greyness that threatened to engulf my childhood in communist Romania. I was, by far, the most colourful presence at the carnival, the jingle of my coins loud against the walls of the austere school corridor that was our catwalk.

If Ovidiu, my Roma classmate of eight years, attended the carnivals, I don’t remember him. If he had donned a Gypsy costume, I might have. At school, the dark uniform meant to make him indistinguishable from the rest of us only accentuated his difference. He spent years in the first row, his every move surveilled, the seat adjacent to his designated by the teacher as a shaming or punitive spot for our occasional acts of disobedience.


Self-indictment as self-indulgence. I am neither ‘we’ nor ‘them,’ and have no simple language for what lies between. I speak from a place of complicity, from a sense of deep failure.


We know that the garishly clad Gypsies of romance or thriller novels, the Gypsies of our song lyrics, poems, paintings, movies, and cartoons are tropes we have constructed out of limited knowledge and boundless imagination. In the latter, their daring, non-normative clothing is both marker of their disenfranchised position and reminder of our enfranchised one. Here, in the realm of the unreal, their much-travelled skirts elicit fantasies, no matter how worn or ragged. Slipping into their clothes (the way one might, also figuratively, slip into another’s shoes) allows us to appropriate, momentarily, those real or mythical aspects of the culture that, though unentitled to, we feel deprived of. What might feel like a move toward empathy (i.e. feeling with the other) is closer, here, to colonial theft.

We know the difference between fantasy and reality, but fail to acknowledge the distance and to bridge the dichotomy. We claim the Gypsy for ourselves, and assign the Roma to the institutions that fail them. When we pass them by on our daily journeys, we instinctively guard our pockets and make sure not to brush against their voluminous skirts, suspecting contamination and deceit.2


Following the collapse of communism (and especially after the accession of various former Eastern Bloc countries to the European Union), many Roma who hoped to escape the perilous position they occupied in their home countries took advantage of the right to free movement and attempted to settle in the West.3 However, here, as in the countries they left behind, they were met with contempt and subjected to discriminatory treatment (think, for instance, of the mass deportations and razing of camps in France and Italy, or the building of segregating walls in Slovakia and Romania) that calls into question the much flaunted ideals of a tolerant, integrated Europe. Official and popular discourses are replete with rhetoric that deem Roma unassimilable and a health hazard, and that turns their attire and demeanour into signifiers of cultural incompatibility and danger. Widely-publicised photos that comment on Roma’s current situation show them against backgrounds of squalor – in makeshift camps that might be bulldozed over any day, huddled against dilapidated buildings, sleeping on park benches. The clothes, even when preserving some of the traditional signatures (for women, long skirts, head scarves, bright colours), mark them as dispossessed and as potential burdens on local and national economies, rather than as embodiments of the idealised travelling/nomad culture that has fuelled, for centuries, our fantasies. To preserve the latter, we cast the Roma as radical ‘others’ and as a disenfranchised social class rather than a minority or ethnic group.


Photos of Roma and renditions of Gypsies deck the walls and shelves of my study. Some days, all I have eyes for are the photos of children and teens in orphanage hand-me-downs or foreign-aid castoffs, some emblazoned with designer trademarks. Some of them I know. Of these, some have died of complications from HIV and/or hepatitis, victims of contaminated needles and a system of neglect. For others, each day is a struggle to survive not just the stigma attached to their Roma identity, but also the additional stigmas of their illnesses.

When I ask Ianu why he would incur so much debt purchasing the small washing machine that now decks the tiny room he’s renting in someone’s apartment, especially when he can’t afford the medicine he needs, he says it’s essential that he always look extra clean and smell good. With my being both Gypsy and sick, that’s really important. I can’t lose my job or have people think me dirty.

Other days, my eyes rest on the brightness of the skirts, the feather-light flouncing on the tunes of some violin, accordion, or tambourine. In my grandmother’s stories, the female Gypsy elders sewed river pebbles into the hems of their skirts so they could carry the sounds of rivers wherever they journeyed. In Colum McCann’s novel Zoli, as soon as the eponymous protagonist starts menstruating, she burns ‘the red rags’ and sews pebbles in the hem of her dress to weigh it down so she may avoid polluting others, especially men.4 In Romani culture, the boundaries between the inner and outer parts of the body are clearly demarcated and strictly observed. During menstruation and birth these boundaries break down, and so the mere touch of the skirt can cause one to enter a state of marime or makherdo (literally, ‘smeared,’ i.e. with menstrual blood).5 Despite these strict rules of cleanliness and modesty – that may account, at least in part, for certain common features of traditional dress codes in Romani cultures across centuries and vastly different territories – women’s ankle-length, multilayered skirts and dresses are rarely perceived as signalling either cleanliness or modesty. In the popular imagination, the richness of their colour palettes, textures, and secret pockets becomes an extension of Gypsies’ presumed exoticism and mystery, at once threatening and luring. Even against a cityscape of miniskirts and deep cleavages, they are assigned all kinds of associations with loose morals, if not illicit sexuality.6


The It Guy Diaries, by Richard Thrust: ‘Well, the gypsy skirt is saying… I’m as wild as a gypsy girl and twice as bad… big guy.’7

The Monmouth Book of Tasteless Jokes, edited by E. Henry Thripshaw: ‘What happens if you stick your hand up a Gypsy’s skirt? You get your palm read every twenty-eight days.’8

Anasyrma: the gesture of lifting up the skirt to reveal the entrance to the womb/tomb, subdue storms, drive away evil, cast spells.

For a while, when I was young, my dad’s regular Sunday trips to the market involved taking photos of the Gypsy beauty who sold bone combs and brooms. He loved the details of her joyful skirts, the sleekness of the pleats, the way the paillette caught the light when she laughed. Mother suspected him of other things. She’d heard the Ţiganca (Romanian, ‘Gypsy woman’) could put a spell on men with just a quick lift of the skirt.


In an op-ed essay titled ‘First Encounter with the Enemy’ that appeared in the The New York Times, prose writer Edith Pearlman describes a double date from her college years. In Pearlman’s words, Mara, the other girl, ‘was beautiful, I allowed, in a dark-browed way. To me she looked like a Gypsy thief, and she wore a cape to complete the image. Her abundant hair took up more room than it seemed legal.’9 Pearlman’s image of a ‘Gypsy thief’ seems to be rooted in outdated book illustrations and cinematic representations of robbers and pirates. What Pearlman identifies with ‘gypsiness’ reads as a concoction of non-conformism, mysteriousness, and discreet ‘otherness.’10

Not unexpectedly, the fashion industry has frequently made ‘gypsiness’ integral to its visions, often by capitalising on the evocative associations with nomadism, border-crossing, and other tropes that signal globalisation and anticipate the emergence of identities shaped around notions of cultural fluidity, transnationalism, and hybridity. In their Technical Sourcebook for Designers, Jaeil Lee and Camille Steen suggest that ‘Gypsy style’ ‘comes into vogue when simplicity and back-to-the land nostalgia is popular, as in the 1970s,’ but other decades seem to have found other ‘uses’ for it as well.11 The 1960s counter-culture co-opted the ‘Gypsy look’ and its attending ‘Gypsy spirit’ by mythologising its power and seeking identification with it. Informed by street dissent and rebellion against the establishment and cookie-cutter uniformity, the fashion revolution made the hippie/ bohemian look central to its discourses on resistance, non-conformism, and individuation. Not surprisingly, to counter the ‘synthetic’ oppressiveness of the West as well as the West’s anxieties about the East, hippies turned toward Eastern cultures, and India in particular, for sources of inspiration, embracing the ideological symbolism of the homespun yarn and hand-woven, hand-embroidered textile and wedding it to other enduring metaphors of resistance.12 Roma, whose Indian roots have been preserved in many aspects of the culture and whose presumed ‘lawlessness’ and disregard for authority have been widely mythologised, have occupied a prominent role in such fantasies.13 In 1969, Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor, wrote in a memo: ‘I think that we can consider that the Gypsy look has now gotten into the bloodstream of most people who are interested in fashion. The look has languor. The hair is crazily wonderful. The girls and boys of today really are Gypsies. They are not competitive. They amuse themselves in their own way and believe in the physical beauty of each other. Let us keep at this Gypsy theme and carry it on into 1970.’14

And we did, into the Seventies and beyond. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Roy Halston added class to the hippie look – that is, they converted the ‘primitive’ look into a ‘civilised’ look – transmogrifying ‘gypsiness’ through social class-reassignment and deepening the distance between reality and fantasy.15 Over the last decades, other designers too (Miuccia Prada, Ralph Lauren, Emilio Pucci, Miki Fukai, Anna Sui and John Galliano to mention but a few) have incorporated Gypsy motifs into their collections, often in looks that boast ‘Gypsy’ colours and expensive fabrics and exude faux disinterest and casualness. Apparently, fashion royalties themselves – such as Margherita Missoni – have used them as inspiration for their own wedding gowns.16

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the ‘Gypsy theme’ is still very much in vogue, in both mainstream and highbrow incarnations. Media reports from the 2015 New York and London Fashion Weeks seem to confirm it. On the New York catwalk Rachel Zoe’s line, ‘loaded with tassels and beading, exuded a “gypset” vibe that combined laid-back style with jet-set sophistication and  meshed well with the colour palette.’17 Indian designer Yana Ngob, present at London Fashion Week, confesses, ‘there’s a huge following of boho and Gypsy trends in the UK and I plan on capitalising on the same.’18

‘Find out what it takes to be a true Gypsy,’ urges a 2012 Bloomingdale’s advertisement in The New York Times, followed by ‘Are you a gypset? Part Gypsy, part Jet Set, all chic?’ Bloomingdale’s invites us to ‘become a devotee of nomadic elegance’ and learn how to become gypsetters by purchasing Julia Chaplin’s guide, Gypset Style. According to Chaplin, ‘gypset’ is a portmanteau word: ‘the wiles of a Gypsy mixed with the sophistication of the jet set;’ as an adjective, it means, ‘characterised by a fashionable exoticism and down to earth ease.’19 The appropriation of ‘gypsiness’ means to endow the appropriators with some aura of glamour, rebelliousness, and alluring ‘otherness,’ while also allowing them to inhabit a position as removed from the realities of Roma’s life as possible. We fetishise excess and extremes, often failing to account for the complicated expansiveness of the in-between.20


Technology has made trafficking ‘gypsiness’ easier than ever, as has the presence of dozens of labels selling Gypsy apparel in department and chain stores from Saks Fifth Avenue to J.C. Penny. For about $135, you own it in the form of a pair of ‘Gypsy 5’ printed fringe shorts; for about $20, you own it in the form of a ‘California Gypsies Fringe Poncho.’

On her webpage ‘Gypsy Costume Accessories,’ Jodie Michalak urges, ‘Free your nomadic spirit with Gypsy costume accessories and treasures. Whether you live a well-travelled life or bare roots, you can embrace bohemia easily by acquiring a few unique and distinctive pieces that speak to your unearthed soul.’ She recommends the use of bangles (‘Layer and layer your bangles. And then add some more.’), chandelier earrings, bohemian blouses, head scarves (‘loosen[ed] haphazardly’ across the forehead), feathers and fringe, and leather goods.21

From gypsyville.com you can acquire a ‘restless roaming spirit’ T-shirt for $18, and Gypsy Junk Clothing offers you a chance to brand yourself with ‘Blame my Gypsy Soul’ at just about the same cost.


2015, Romania: At the picnic I organise for the orphan Romanian Roma teens I had worked with in the early Nineties, Ianu shows up in two-tone pointy lacquer shoes. They were a present to mark his return to the ‘tribe,’ he says. He had just recently met his birth family for the first time. They’re Gypsy Gypsy, he whispers in my ear, the kind in voluminous skirts and lots of sparkle and garish colours. We hike the city’s botanical gardens till we find a clearing, have sandwiches on the grass, then play ball. Ianu’s mates mock the shoes, but not unkindly. Look look look, we’ve gotten ourselves an emancipated Roma here. What, Gypsy didn’t feel right anymore? After the picnic, we walk through the downtown. Some highschoolers jeer and throw insults as they walk by: Hey cross-eyed crows. You got yourselves one in fancy shoes, ha? Ianu asks if I’ve ever heard about Black Sarah, the Patron Saint of Gypsies. He’s heard she lives in France, near the water, and that she’s the most gorgeously dressed saint in the world. Pilgrims change her clothes all the time, and sometimes leave their shoes around her, like votive candles. That’s what he’d do if he ever reached that shore.

This article was first published in Vestoj On Failure.

Mihaela Moscaliuc is an assistant professor at Monmouth University and author. She was born Roma and grew up in Romania.

Ari Versluis & Ellie Uyttenbroek are Dutch photographers, these photographs are from their ongoing ‘Exactitudes’ series, which they began in 1998.

  1. The term Roma (or Romani, which is often used as both noun and adjective) has been adopted to replace the term Gypsies, which is an exonym laden with pejorative connotations. 

  2. According to media reports, a Roma woman accused of theft walked out of a store in Oslo with a 42-inch TV under her skirts, clasped between her thighs. See dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2187983/Thief-arrested-shopliftinghiding-42in-TV-skirt.html 

  3. On a historical contextualisation of Roma’s position in Europe, including the history of their enslavement, systematic persecution, and extermination during the Holocaust, see T Acton, Gypsy Politics and Social Change, Routledge, London, 1974; D M Crowe, A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1994; and I Hancock, We Are the Romani People, University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 2002. 

  4. The protagonist of C McCann’s novel Zoli, Random House, New York, 2006 is loosely modelled on the iconic Polish Gypsy/Romani singer- poet Bronisława Wajs, known as Papusza. 

  5. I Hancock, We Are the Romani People, University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 2002. For a detailed discussion of Romani rules and codes of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’, especially as they relate to hygiene, deportment, food preparation, but also the distinction between the inside of the body and the upper and lower parts of the body, see J Okely’s chapters on ‘Symbolic Boundaries’ and ‘Gypsy Women’ in The Traveller-Gypsies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983 

  6. As I Hancock points out in We Are the Romani People, ‘Romani morals are in fact excessively strict by non-Romani standards; showing the legs, for example, is gadžikani forma, or non-Romani behavior (…), virginity at the time of a first marriage is required (…) and topics concerning sex or other bodily functions are strenuously avoided in mixed company’ (p.102-103). 

  7. R Thrust, ‘The It Guy Diaries’, Lulu.com, p.141 

  8. E H Thripshaw (ed.), The Monmouth Book of Tasteless Jokes, Running Press, London, 2010 

  9. E Pearlman, ‘First Encounter with the Enemy,’ The New York Times, December 15th 2013, p.9 

  10. Some of the observations included in this section appear also in my article ‘Trafficking Gypsiness in the 21st Century,’ in V Mele and M Vujnovic (eds), Globalizing Cultures: Theories, Paradigms, Actions, Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden, 2015 

  11. J Lee and C Steen, Technical Sourcebook for Designers, Fairchild Books, New York, 2014 

  12. The hippie trend seems to have drawn on the powerful associations of homespun cloth with Mahatma Ghandi’s liberation movement and with alternative forms of national identity. For a discussion of khadi (homespun cloth) as symbol of political resistance and national identity in Ghandi’s India, see S S Bean’s essay, ‘Spinning for Freedom,’ in Vestoj On Slowness, 2014, p.29-39 

  13. See I Hancock’s chapter on ‘How Indian Are Romanies?’ in his We Are the Romani People, p.70-76 

  14. D Vreeland, ‘Memos from D.V.’ The New Yorker, September 17th 2001, p.74 

  15. See V Manlow’s argument in Designing Clothes: Culture and Organization of the Fashion Industry, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, 2009, p.97 

  16. Hello Daily News, June 25th 2012. us.hellomagazine.com/brides/201206258434/margherita-missoni-wedding 

  17. E Pishdadian, ‘New York Fashion Week 2015’s Hottest Looks from Mara Hoffman, Monique Lhuillier, Rachel Zoe, Reem Acra and Ohne Titel,’ International Business Times, September 17th 2015 

  18. See rediff.com/getahead/report/glamourtribal-indian-designs-to-feature-at-londonfashion-week/20150918.htm 

  19. See publisher’s website for Julia Chaplin’s Gypset Style, Assouline Publishing, 2009, assouline.com/9781614280620 

  20. See for instance, the hyperbolic gaudiness advanced by The Learning Channel in reality shows such as ‘My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding’ (modelled on the British ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’). 

  21. See costumes.lovetoknow.com/costume-accessories/gypsy-costume-accessories