Romani Cultural Appropriation Exploitation: Gypsy Fashion & Dance
The Romani have had to fight a two front war regarding how our culture is represented in the media & fashion industry. In America, we often battle false stereotypes that sexualize us, romanticize us, and concoct facets of our culture that have never truly been. In Europe, we must consistently battle to be portrayed as decent human beings. European television shows exist solely for the purpose of poking fun at & humiliating ethnic Romani persons.
People know so little about our true culture that often what they label as “gypsy” is in no way related to Romani cultural traditions, dance, or dress. When I see non-Romani own painted bow-top wagons, I do not think of it as stolen culture, nor would do I care that non-Romani girls are fond of printed circle skirts & head scarves. To me, that is not appropriative. While we were oppressed in Europe, it is unfair to say we were colonized or can relate in any way to colonization. In fact, we contributed much more to European culture than Europeans would ever like to admit.
Many “folk” dances of Eastern & Central Europe were strongly influenced by traditional Romani dance. We gave Spain the Flamenco, Romania the T’aven Baxtale, and Poland the Polka. Not one of these very traditional folk dances would exist had the Romani never left India & made it to Europe. Great composers spent hours listening to our music for inspiration. The Romani introduced palm reading & herbalism to the West.
I can only speak for myself, but I do not find it appropriative when non-Romani participate in such activities as palm reading, wearing a head scarf in the style of our diklo, or taking interest in bow-top wagons.
I am safely assuming that I can speak for the majority of other Romani that what we do find offensive is when people misappropriate our culture, or wrongly commodify aspects of our culture to appeal to those who know little about us, or that “gypsy” is even a racial slur.
What truly bothers us are the hordes of young women calling their long skirts a “gypsy” skirt, or fashion merchandisers labeling all long skirts as “gypsy” skirts. You can’t just call every long skirt a “gypsy” skirt. Many cultures wear ankle-length skirts.
A true Romani “gypsy” skirt is sewn in a very specific way. Of course, there are several types of skirt patterns that are traditional to our culture, but I can assure you, a real Romani “gypsy” skirt is not the same as its fashion name-sake. There are certain features of our skirts that are not the same as other European folk costumes. Those in the fashion business have no idea what Romani people truly wear, how to sew our traditional skirts & tops. Not to mention, that our dress varies across Europe & largely depends on what sub-group one belongs to & in which country or region their ancestors had lived.
“Gypsy” fashion is not even appropriation. It does not even fall under that category. “Gypsy” fashion is exploitation. It is the use of a racial slur for a poorly understood & oppressed ethnic people that are often wrongly associated with mysticism & carefree lifestyles. “Gypsy” fashion is the fabrication of false cultural dress, the bastardization of very small amounts of our culture that are then remade to fit the outside world’s perception of us. I don’t think young women would dress “gypsy” voluntarily if they knew what our true traditional clothing was.
I don’t care if people like the way we dress. No one ever bothered to ask us why we wear what we do. Our culture is just continuously demoralized by the fashion world.
There is also another feature of fashion’s exploitation of our people that never is brought to light. Our dress is often sexualized. When “gypsy” is sexualized, who truly suffers from being sexualized? Romani women & girls.
Those “gypsy” skirts are not worn to make a fashion statement. They are worn to cover the lower half of the body for modesty. They are worn to protect the body & keep women from being viewed as sexual objects. These “gypsy” scarves are not for fashion, either. They are never worn as a makeshift top that leaves little to the imagination. They are not tied so that we look like pirates. They are not worn like headbands. Our scarves are worn to cover the hair of women who are married or betrothed to signify that they are not in any way marriageable to other men. The key phrase there is to cover the hair, as in for reasons of modesty, much like women who wear hijab or religious head coverings. Usually, the only hair, if any, that is visible is one or two braids in the front, or the bottom of a braid on the back. Many times, the hair is wound tightly into a bun & no hair is visible at all.
When the fashion word portrays, which it often does, its “gypsy” styles as sexual in nature or provocative, there are very real consequences for Romani women. When this is done, they unknowingly, or knowingly, sexualize the females of our ethnicity. We become synonymous with provocative behavior & dress.
The same can be said for the dance world, too. Last night I posted three different types of Romani dance from Hungary, Turkey & Russia; three distinct regions in which Romani have developed variety in their dance traditions, dress & dialects. Not one of these dances included belly dancing. Not one of these dances contained a woman in a slit skirt, or raising the skirt in a manner that was meant to show skin. The only time we lift our skirts is for pure aesthetic, which will only result in leg showing accidentally, or so that the footwork involved in our dances can be viewed.
We never, I repeat never, lift our skirts in order to show skin. That would be highly immodest & we would immediately be pulled from public view & scolded. It is considered extraordinarily disrespectful & shameful to do so in our culture.
Belly dance is not Romani. Belly dance originated in the Ottoman Empire. The Romani picked up some of this tradition on our way to Europe, but it was not introduced to the West by us, as many wrongly believe. It was brought by the British & French from the Ottoman Empire, the modern day Arab world. It is an Arab dance. It is not a Romani dance; therefore it is not a “gypsy” dance.
Yes. There are Romani who perform belly dance, but perform is all. This is not how we dance on a regular basis. It is not right to attribute this dance to us & not right to label it as “gypsy”.
And this again brings us back to the sexualization issue. I have had the unfortunate experience of stumbling upon many “gypsy” belly dancers from Renaissance fairs & dance troupe performances. What they’re doing is in no way “gypsy”. They often don barely there costumes & shake their wares in a very, rather extremely, sexual manner. This is not our dance. You can dance this way if your dignity allows, but do not ascribe the word “gypsy”, or God forbid, Romani to this dance.
By using the term “gypsy” to represent everything sexual in nature the Western world can think of, they have made our women, our little girls, into sexual objects. This is not in any way acceptable.
Romani women have been perceived as “easy”, as uninhibited, and have long been objectified. This has, and continues, to result in sexual aggression towards our women & girls, even rape.
Before doing your “gypsy” belly dance, or tagging nearly nude woman “gypsy” because to you, it is fashion, consider how many young Romani girls will be victims of rape because you have sexually objectified our entire ethnicity. The only other “Western” culture that has experienced anything even remotely like this have been Native Americans.
This is not a joke. This is not an exaggeration.
Ask Native American women how Western sexualization of their culture has gone for them, too.
This is extremely condemnable. It is pure evil.
I don’t care if you want to wear long skirts. I don’t care if you want to wear a diklo with braids in the front. I don’t care if you want to learn our dances. I care very much that Romani women across America & Europe are raped because of what you’ve chosen to do with that skirt, scarf & dance.
This is not even appropriation. This is far worse than appropriation.
The Romani have never seen true appropriation because, honestly, no one gives a damn about us or our culture.
Next time you tag a picture “gypsy”
Next time you name your belly dance group “gypsy”
Next time you perform a sexual “gypsy” dance
Next you sell provocative clothing under the label of “gypsy”
Next time you wear your “gypsy” scarf as a shirt
I want you to think long & hard about the thousands of little Romani girls that will grow up to one day be objectified, kidnapped, prostituted, and raped because you feel the need to make us look “easy”.