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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 “Champion 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 quo.

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.

Cristina Ruscio & Dafina Savic

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