27 April 2009

Fashion: Sartorial Splendor, Roma Style

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

Few things convey the individuality of a culture as effectively as fashion. From the towering, often vermin-infested hairstyles worn by women in 18th century France to the leather buckskins worn by Native American Indians, the clothing we wear depicts the era in which we live and, as the advertising slogan says, forms the "fabric of our lives."

The Roma began their migration from India to Europe and beyond many centuries ago, picking up Persian, Greek, and other influences along the way. Their travels across distant lands exposed them to the use of dyes to color cloth, making them appear like colorful peacocks dressed in hues of blue, green, pink, burgundy, orange and yellow, in sharp contrast to peasants of the era who wore earth tones created from affordable, available vegetable dyes. Not all colors were acceptable, however. The bright shade of red associated with the color of blood was considered back luck, and the color white was linked to mourning and death and was also unlucky.

To this day, mention the word "Gypsy" and most people picture dark-eyed, raven-haired women garbed in brightly colored blouses accented with braid and lavish embroidery, swirling, multi-layered skirts, and the requisite gold hoop earrings. Historically, this image is not inaccurate. A 19th century Roma woman would wear her long hair braided until she married, and once wed, she would cover her tresses with a head scarf, called a diklo, when in public. Puffed sleeved blouses with low necklines were worn, and bodices would often be made of tapestry material or heavily embroidered fabric decorated with ribbons and sewn-in or tied on bells.

While bodice necklines might dip low enough to reveal a scandalous amount of cleavage, strong beliefs surrounding the concepts of cleanliness and modesty dictated the length of the skirts worn by Roma females during this era, and women were expected to keep the lower half of their bodies--including their legs--concealed at all times. And because the Roma did not trust the safety of the financial institutions of the gadjo world, their wealth was converted to gold and worn on their person, hence the profusion of gold earrings and gold necklaces.

While both sexes wore vibrant colors, the clothing of the Roma man was less distinctive than that of his female counterpart. Standard of Romany male dress might include a mustache, a neckerchief, and a large hat. Roma men wore loose-fitting, brightly colored shirts with buttoned or tied collars, and some outfits might be customized to reflect the profession of the wearer, such as a poacher wearing a vest festooned with bits of fur or feathers. Rings, sashes, leather pouches, amulets and gold earrings would provide the finishing touch.