Both the original My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and the new American version on TLC are television documentaries that follow teenage Romany (or Romani, short for Romanichal) Gypsies as they either prepare to get married or for a big milestone party like a birthday or prom (or in one case, for a party to find a husband.) The dresses are big, sparkly beyond belief, and are often topped off with the monstrous tiaras that toddlers often compete for an another TLC show. The wedding and special event dresses are head-turning but what can really get viewers riled up are the sexy outfits the young teenage girls wear as normal party wear, or even every day clothes.
What makes the Romany gypsy fashion (as portrayed in this television show) even more perplexing is the strict sexual code girls are expected to abide by. They are rarely even allowed around boys who aren’t family members, and many stop attending school around age 13 in order to learn how to cook, clean, and take care of children. They also aren’t supposed to even kiss before their wedding day (which often happens before they turn 18.) Why do the young Romany girls dress in such a sexually revealing way when they have such strict behavior restrictions?
These seemingly contradictory behaviors (especially in relation to other conservative cultures who expect both chastity AND modest clothing for girls) are rooted in their history and patriarchal traditions. Men are considered to be the head of the family, with the oldest man in the household being deferred to first. Girls are trained to be good wives instead of focusing on their education and training for their own careers. They are married young, and although boys are not expected to be virgins, they avoid marrying a girl who isn’t a virgin. In this culture girls are not considered to be indecent when they show off their skin and wear flashy outfits. In fact, because there are such strict limitations on dating and communicating, they way the girls dress seems to be integral to the process of finding a mate. According to what we see on these shows many marriages are based on first impressions. The guys also do their best to stand out, grooming themselves with styled blowouts to rival DJ Pauly D’s.
It can be hard to imagine when you come from a different cultural viewpoint. For instance, many strict Muslims believe that any woman is indecent if she even shows her hair. Christians may have similar moral beliefs to the Muslims (a woman shouldn’t have sex before marriage) but it is often seen to completely innocent for a woman to reveal her hair, arms, cleavage, and legs. Within Christianity itself there are huge differences in what is considered to be modest dress.
Gypsies are often called “travelers” because for centuries they have roamed from place to place instead of settling down. They are believed to have originally come out of India about a thousand years ago, and traveled around parts of Europe, including Ireland. Their religion was originally Hindu, but at some point the Romani people converted to Catholicism in Europe. Their thoughts and traditions about gender roles, and how a woman should behave and dress seem to be, in part, the result of centuries of Hindu beliefs mixing with Catholicism, combined with a “traveling” lifestyle that stayed separate from the behavior, culture, and mores of the Western world.