Swinging London 1967,
complete series of photos of the magazine “Paris Match” on the psychedelic fashion in London. October 1967. Jane Birkin appears in two photos. Photos by Philippe Le Tellier (Paris Match)
G*psy Prêt-à-porter: A collection of misuse and misinformation
With 2017 London Fashion Week well underway, shows are going political—and being the human rights, economic empowerment
devotees we are, could not be more proud. Only thing is, when will the universe
of couture finally understand our battle?
Generally intended to express colourful,
carefree, bohemian style, the
word “gypsy” is thrown around loosely in the fashion world.
From brand names and labels, to standard industry jargon, the word has through
time entrenched itself deep within the bowels of the trade. It is no dernier
cri. In 2010, Kate Moss posed for a questionable 2010 V Magazine editorial by stylist Karen Langley and photographer Ian
Kell entitled “Kate & the Gypsies” while John Galliano, Anna Sui, and countless
others included interpretations of the “gypsy” in their ready-to-wear repertoires. In May 2015,
Urban Outfitters came under another wave of harsh and well-deserved criticism,
notably in the Twittersphere, for coming out with a graphic tee that wrote: Gypster—a hybrid between “gypsy” and “hipster.” Being a “gypster” was defined on the t-shirt as someone who is
wild, free-spirited, and, of course, “always on the move.”
Yet, it appears the conversation that started in
2015 died a quick and painless death, as the term steadily resurfaced with
little to no backlash at all. For instance, the gender-neutral brand Gypsy Sport led by designer Rio Uribe has
been a complete hit on the catwalk this year. Allure Magazine described it as a
for diversity.” Last fall, Kenzo showcased what was described
by media as their “gypsy” silhouette dresses on the H&M runway, while
the Duchess of Cambridge sported an Alexander McQueen dress inspired by the “intricately
beautiful floral patterns seen painted on gypsy caravans and canal barges in
the British countryside.”
What appear as celebrations of the “gypsy” are in fact misconstrued representations of
Rromani people that insidiously work to continue patterns of discrimination and
marginalization today. “Gypsy” is much more than just a word. There are
meanings, implications, identities and consequences
involved in using the term—meanings the fashion world has carelessly
neglected. Don’t get us wrong, centuries-worth of
misinformation and typecasting do not help by any means.
First and foremost, the word g*psy is derogatory. It was originally
used to characterize a person of Rromani origin
based on the mistaken belief that Rromani people came from Egypt. The term
increasingly became synonymous with someone who cheats, steals, or for lack of
a better term, “gyp.” To be clear, it is a racial slur. The fact that some Rromani identify themselves
with the term and do not take offence to it does not make its use any less
derogatory, as there is a large percentage of the population that doesn’t
feel the same.
It would be foolish to deny that its meaning has
evolved in certain social realms. In the fashion industry, many designers and
consumers do not use it or interpret it negatively per se. The problem is that
there are still many places in the world where it is still used to discriminate
and dehumanize people of Rromani origin.
When Vivienne Westwood used Rromani models in
her spring/summer 2009 tolerance-themed menswear show to illustrate the
minority as the “rough, stylish and hardened outcasts of society,” she received criticism from many. At the time,
Milan’s assessor for industry and fashion and ex-Forza Italia MP, Tiziana
Maiolo, publicly stated that “there is no chance for integration while the men
play cards instead of working and the women and children steal and beg.”
She also proposed to guide Vivienne on a tour of the nomad camps to prove just
how outdated her “romanticized” perception of Rromani is.
That kind of reaction is no surprise. The rise
of right-wing populism in Europe has since intensified and the Rromani
population, among other minorities, are paying for it. There is a lot wrong
with this whole picture that ought to be corrected. For one thing, over 90% of
Roma are sedentary. The stereotypes of nomadism perpetuated by dominant
political classes have served as a direct tool of marginalization and
segregation. The camps or campi nomadi mentioned by Signora Maiolo, were
established by the Italian government to appease the so-called cultural
nomadism of the Rromani population. Let me repeat, over 90% of Roma are
sedentary. The living conditions of these camps are squalid and fall beneath
human right standards, yet governments around the world have blamed Rromani, as
if they want to live this way.
When the fashion industry perpetuates the
stereotype of nomadism in Rromani culture, they feed into and legitimize a
legacy of discrimination. It’s worth pointing out that 10% of Rromani are
nomadic, but it certainly does not stem from a romantic free-spirited idea, but
was adopted as a means of survival. Still today, in schools across Western and
Eastern Europe, Rromani children are segregated. Access to education remains a
serious concern, as do access to healthcare and employment. Acts of violence
and hate crimes against Rromani are also on the rise, while even the Canadian
government refuses to publicly recognize the Roma Genocide where half a million
Rromani were murdered under the Nazi regime during WWII. Years of political
rhetoric and misinformation have dehumanized the Rromani population.
Giving into such stereotypes sends a strong
message to the Rromani community. When designers, companies and journalists use
the term g*psy to describe a brand or particular collection as nomadic, wild
and free-spirited for their own commercial benefit, they neglect the real and
continuing plight of Rromani and unintentionally reinforce their
stigmatization. Let’s remember that there is not a single sphere
where being Rromani is embraced or praised. Even brands that claim to be
inclusive have no real interest in battling stereotypes and changing the status
Fashion is often an expression of a designer’s creativity and identity. Therefore, fashion
that misconstrues an identity by celebrating this ill-informed interpretation
of g*psy culture is highly problematic and in this case, ignorant. For
centuries, Rromani communities have suffered persecution, hatred, and violence.
By romanticizing the plight of Rromani communities, the fashion industry
demonstrates its ignorance and ultimately neglects the fact that Roma are
people. It is time for the powerful and highly influential fashion industry to
be cognizant of the world around it, and stop reducing a people to a trend.
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