An insight into the world of fashion – Opening the doors of Romani culture

Fashion is an important part of social life and interactions – touching upon it on a variety of different levels, be it from the desire to conform or the desire to be novel. Fashion is not simply what one wears but a visible marker of the choices made in the everyday life, in terms of housing style, books read, hairstyle, the places one frequents etc. In this sense, fashion helps confirm associations to a certain group or category of people, or to a certain trend, basically allowing one to express him or her self through their physical appearance, which entails much more than simply the idea of ‘what to wear’.

Romani fashion and style has been getting more and more attention in recent years, with many designers finding inspiration from our diverse communities and the different fashion styles that come along with them. However, Romani fashion is generally perceived in a homogenous way, and in many cases the propagation of our culture through fashion has done nothing but reinforce the stereotypes, and remind non-Romani ethnics of the hate instigating romanticized views of the Roma.

by Sinziana C. Marin

There are many different opinions with regards to the social definition of fashion. For example, Kimbal Young (1930) believed that fashion is primarily a mode of expression, a personal choice with characteristics that are an off-beat of the permanent base of customs, and that will therefore allow for the change to occur.

In their article on “Sociology of fashion: Order and Change”, Aspers and Godart (2013) start by pointing out the importance of acknowledging fashion as both a sociological topic, but also as a “social phenomenom par execellence”. Aspers and Godart (2013) make a strong point about fashion as a social practice or habit that touches all contemporary areas of social interraction. However, not simply from an esthetic point of view, but also from one that addresses and involves all classical sociological concerns, from the culture and structure complex question, to the micro and macro debate.

From this perspective, we can assume that fashion is a series of recurring changes which also involvs the aspect of utility, but it is most definitely not determined by it. Fashion becomes a hugely important part of life and touches upon it on a variety of different levels, be it from the desire to conform or the desire to be novel. Fashion is not simply what one wears but a visible marker of the choices made in the everyday life, in terms of housing style, books read, places of interest etc.

This being said, we can confidently acknowledge that fashion is an important means of social control that determines many variables of human interaction and behaviors, such as: speech, belief, opinion, music, literature, and more. Fashion helps confirm associations to a certain group or category of people, or to a certain trend, basically allowing one to express him or her self through their physical appearance, which entails much more than simply the idea of ‘what to wear’.

Romani fashion and style has been getting more and more attention in recent years, with many designers finding inspiration from our diverse communities and the different fashion styles that come along with them. However, Romani fashion is generally perceived in a homogenous way, and in many cases the propagation of our culture through fashion has done nothing but reinforce the stereotypes, and remind non-Romani ethnics of the hate instigating romanticized views of the Roma.

From Victor Hugo’s (1831) ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’, to Bizet’s (1875) ‘Carmen’ or Emil Loteanu’s (1976) ‘Satra’, Romani people’s fashion choices and behavioral characteristics, especially when referring to women, have been portrayed as sensual, flowy, free, mysterious, passionate, making them look and feel like outsiders, detached and wild, with no real similarities to the non-Roma.

Rada performed by Svetlana Toma - in the 1976  famous adaptation titled "Queen of the Gypsies", directed by Emil Loteanu

Rada performed by Svetlana Toma – in the 1976 famous adaptation titled “Queen of the Gypsies”, directed by Emil Loteanu

It is not only in Romani culture that fashion is associated mostly with women, but generally speaking fashion choices have a much larger focus on women, which in the opinion of Georg Simmel (1957) signals a “lack of personal freedom”. Simmel (1957) also points out that fashion choices are guided by the specific social sphere one belongs to, which will make people imitate or follow the certain trends that surround them. Through this imitation one does not simply transfer a creative demand, but also, and most importantly, the responsibility that comes along with following a certain fashion trend.

 [Excerpt from “Carmen, Act 1: Habanera – “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Carmen, Chorus), performance by Angela Gheorghiu ]

As in the case of the above mentioned works of art, an inherent fear may be propagated through different kind of creative works, movies, poetry, opera, leaving people with a one-sided opinion that builds on centuries-old stereotypes and can have the opposite of the desired effect, just reinforcing these essentializing ideas about an entire minority group, by promoting a channeled fascination for beauty and the aesthetics of the unknown.

In Loteanu’s Satra, Radda’s iconic character is portrayed as a fiery and dangerously beautiful Romani woman, with mysterious, dominating, and fortune-telling powers, which are intimidating, yet undeniably mesmerizing. The aesthetics and fashion choices of the characters’ costumes from Satra are exaggerated and simply objectified from an outsider’s perception as inappropriately beautiful and provocative. [8] This singular view of the fashion style of Romani people, as seen by outsiders of non-Roma heritage, disregards the incredibly rich diversity of the Roma, which of course, comes with different clothing and accessorizing styles.

That being said, let’s begin exploring Romani fashion and style choices through the eyes of a Roma. Is our fashion style homogenous, is it provocative, and is it all about flower patterns and flowy dresses?

What to wear?

Regardless of the increase in social freedom, women are still more pressured into “dressing up” or being “girly”, which may or may not have negative repercussions on one’s life, but it does however represent an extra pressure on women to abide by what is socially acceptable.

Style choices also reflect one’s social status, ethnicity, or the cultural background one comes from, playing an important role, no matter of the financial situation.

Moreover, we can now see a tendency in men or women to choose a certain fashion trend, or a specific type of wear, in order to make a statement, visibly showing what they believe in, or something they support. For example, it is very common for Finish Romani women to dress in traditional wear for official events. Regardless of the social background, an educated Romani woman from Finland may choose to wear traditional clothing in order to make a statement and show respect and appreciation of one’s culture. At the same time, non-Roma women or men may choose to wear traditional Romani attire in certain contexts, in order to show their support for the culture, as well as the fact that they admire our traditional fashion style.

All in all, what matters is making a conscious and empowered decision that succeeds into taking control of one’s heartfelt style and fashion choices, which may or may not reflect on culture or ethnicity.

Traditional Finish Romani Fashion

Finish Romani people have a distinct wear when compared to the Romani fashion perceptions that are generally propagated, for better or worse, in the mainstream media. However, Finish Romani fashion does not differ from any other Romani community that has settled in a certain country and adapted to the local culture. Like in all EU countries that have Romani populations with considerable past and roots within the respective community and land, Finish Romani wear has been greatly influenced by local ethnic wear. Traditional Romani wear in Finland has been highly influenced by ethnic Finns, both in Roma women and men. [12] [13] Before the 20th century, Romani women dressed similarly to rustic ethnic Finnish women. Nonetheless, Finnish Romani women personalized their wear, generally using bigger applications attached to the traditional blouses making them look more embellished, as well as using different colors, rather than just the traditional white, blue, or read. Even though the upper part is adapted and embellished with plenty of accessories for a more creative and versatile look, the lower part remains mostly in a traditional velvety material, and is normally of a dark color such as black or dark-blue. [12]

For Finish Romani women, wearing the traditional wear is not only a matter of a fashion choice, neither an obligation to abide by a rule, it is however a conscious choice women have to make when they reach their young adult life. Finish Romani women start wearing the dress in between the ages of 14 and 17, and even though the women can make the choice of continuing to wear it or not, they are still under the pressure of the dress – at least in front of the elderly members of the family. On the down side, in recent years, the pressure of wearing the traditional Romani clothes for Finnish women has become more of a challenge. Many women do choose to adopt traditional fashions, as this represents a symbol of respect for the elders, as well as one of purity and modesty, but in many ways choosing to adopt traditional fashions makes integration and acceptance within Finnish society a lot harder. The main problem of the Romani women wearing traditional attire comes when looking for a job, since there are many employers who are not willing to employ them because of “health & safety” rules that would not allow the voluminous fashion styles at work. Many jobs, especially after stricter rules imposed by the ever-evolving European standards, imply the wearing of a uniform, or of more neutral attire, which makes it harder for Finish Romani women to conform. [12]

Nonetheless, Finnish Romani fashion prevails and the more Romani women embrace their customs, the harder it will be to suppress a beautiful tradition based on respect and humbleness, as well as on creativity and pride for one’s own heritage.

Romani Designers

Unfortunately there are few mainstream Romani fashion designers, and the Romani-inspired high-fashion designs are presented and closely marketed along the romantic notions about the Roma. As a package nearly, made to sell, rather than simply present designs inspired by a diverse culture, based on traditions that are centuries old and do not actually imply any of the romanticized perceptions of the Roma. Romani fashion is closely related to notions such as cleanliness, respect and purity, not mystics or sensuality.

Among fashion designers of Romani origin, we can find Georghe Radulescu, a Romanian Roma former model – that decided to explore fashion from a different angle, and became a designer.

George Radulescu’s background also lies in sociology, the young designer having achieved a Phd. in sociology, however decided to also explore the fashion world with an added modern twist, in order to ease the transition of Romani wear into the mainstream, without solely focusing on the romanticized notions but also on customs and history.

Design by George Radulescu

Design by George Radulescu

Design by George Radulescu

Design by George Radulescu

Design by George Radulescu

Design by George Radulescu

Romani Inspired High Fashion Trends

In 2009, iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood launched a Roma inspired collection in Milan, supposedly made with the purpose of promoting a better understanding of Romani culture and raise awareness about oppression practices against Romani ethnics, yet it managed to merely enrage and have the exact opposite effect.

“Dressing her models as “rough, stylish and hardened” Roma – to pay homage to “the outcasts of society” – for Sunday’s show, the designer ran foul of intolerance towards Gypsy camps in Italy.” (Tom Kington, The Guardin)

During the catwalk show, the male models even walked with leashed bulldogs, clearly alluding to the English portrayal of the Gypsy Travellers ‘thugs’, who are perceived as generally as ferocious, due to their fascination with this dog race.

Apart from Ms. Westwood, whose incredible fashion credentials should not be solely compared, or perceived through this more than failed attempt at being ‘alternative’, other high fashion designers, such as John Galliano, Roberto Cavalli or Anna Sui have all bitten into the “all that is wild and free” boho-chic stereotype, which basically takes the centuries old idea of the Roma as wild and free bohemian creatures, and adds contemporary elements to it. These allures of knowledge do not affect the perception of Romani people just at a higher societal level, or at the level in which high fashion is reachable, but without a doubt influences all classes. High fashion always sets the ‘trends’ or ‘currents’ to be followed, it is observed and desired, which makes it an important factor that influences all levels of society. In 2013, Kate Moss took part in a “gypsy” inspired photo shoot, wearing clothes by Abel Marant, Chloe Sevign, Kenzo, John Galliano, Stefanel, Dsquared, as well as vintage pieces. The shoot was done in a Romani community in Cornwall, England, and presented Kate posing in different circumstances that are generally associated with the Romani or Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Kate Moss - Roma inspired fashion pictorial

Kate Moss – Roma inspired fashion pictorial

This approach solely played on the modern idea of a bohemian lifestyle, which alludes to a free and effortless style of clothing. Nowadays, there are many fusions of this bohemian style such as: boho-chic, boho-rock, boho-luxe, all of which simply play on the mainstream perceptions of cultures like the native-Americans or the Roma, fully disregarding any other aspects of these culture, and just focusing on the romanticized stereotype. Nonetheless, it should not be denied that the boho style does show a fascination for beauty and the aesthetics that Romani fashions entail. However, it is unfortunate that this is the only approach present in mainstream society, and this has been the case for centuries.

Kate Moss - Roma inspired fashion pictorial

Kate Moss – Roma inspired fashion pictorial

Fashion, as an ever changing, even cyclical concept can represent a major mediator in changing perspectives and expressing beliefs, regardless of race or social background. Examples of failed attempts at integrating an aspect of a culture into the mainstream can cause more harm, further exoticizing and playing on the “otherness” aspect of the Romani people. This does not mean that all attempts should be stopped, but rather that they should be given more thought, and carried out with deserved respect and a deeper sense of responsibility.

References:

  1. http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Norway-to-Russia/Roma.html#b
  2. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/american-gypsies/articles/romani-culture-and-traditions/
  3. http://thegypsychronicles.net/romani-design/
  4. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/american-gypsies/articles/a-history-of-the-romani-people/
  5. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0104/feature4/
  6. http://itsbrowntown.blogspot.hu/2013/10/chances-are-youve-heard-of-gypsies.html
  7. http://www.summitdaily.com/news/13589761-113/opera-carmen-bizet-breckenridge
  8. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/hunchback/
  9. http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Esmeralda
  10. http://romani.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/whatis/language/origins.shtml
  11. http://www15.uta.fi/FAST/FIN/SOCPOL/ir-roma.html
  12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_Kale
  13. http://thegypsychronicles.net/romani-design/
  14. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jun/24/fashion.italy
  15. http://kivari.com.au/bohemian-clothing-2/
  16. https://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Young/1930/1930_23.html
  17. http://sites.middlebury.edu/individualandthesociety/files/2010/09/Simmel.fashion.pdf
  18. http://kivari.com.au/bohemian-clothing-2/
  19. http://www.painfullyhip.com/2009/08/painfully-hawt-kate-moss-for-v-magazine/
  20. annurev-soc-071811-145526%20(1).pdf (Aspers, Godart)
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