Gypsies and the gypsy culture has long been a mystery to many people and their sketchy history is a piece of what keeps this group so interestingly veiled in mystery. By studying their language which is called Romany, historians and anthropologists ascertain that this nomadic group of people has their roots in the Sind area of Northern India (currently south Central Pakistan), but no one knows exactly when or even why they left.
Through linguistic studies, it has been determined that there were three distinct populations who immigrated: the Central Gypsy, called Lomavren, in Armenia and eastern Turkey, the Eastern Gypsy, called Domari, in Egypt and the Middle East, and the Western Gypsy, called Romani in Europe. It is the Romani who are most familiar to the majority of people.
Gypsies were intelligent and easily impressed uneducated locals by giving themselves titles such as Dukes, Lords, Counts and Earls and assumed the importance of those titles. They made claims of pilgrimages supported by the Pope and demanded safe passage in countries where he had influence. In their early days, this practice afforded them relatively safe passage in many countries along with food and lodging from wealthy religious people who believed it would give them good standing in the church to assist the gypsies.
In the 1400s groups of gypsies traveled throughout Central and Western Europe. The men were horse traders, metal workers and musicians and the women told fortunes. Unfortunately the "clients" of the fortune tellers were often relieved of their purses and thus the gypsies were branded pickpockets and thieves by many people. Though they purported to be religious, the gypsies were feared by many and brought governments to issue edicts against them in many countries.
In the 1500s many countries passed laws to expel gypsies under threats of imprisonment and in some cases, death. In some parts of Central Europe, gypsies were forced into slavery. Some countries passed laws prohibiting gypsy clothing, gypsy music as well as their language and customs. The gypsies, in many cases, simply went elsewhere until they were expelled from those locations, but they experienced increased hostilities wherever they traveled. They often traveled in gypsy caravans and camped outside villages until they were forced to leave the area.
Gypsy Clothing Continues to be in Fashion
Vibrant colors, except for fire engine red, dominated gypsy clothing. That color was considered bad luck because it was associated with blood. Often vests and scarves were worn usually around the head of both men and women. Both men and women wore lots of jewelry such as big hoop earrings, necklaces, rings, anklets and bangle bracelets.
Gypsy clothing made its way into mainstream fashion, especially in the 1960s. The free flowing skirts and peasant blouses were a staple for the hippies and the skirts continue to be popular even today. Most gypsy skirts today are tiered and full, swinging freely around the legs of the women who wear them. Blouses are often white with a gathered neck and sleeve opening or intricately designed with big puffy sleeves.
The Gypsy Wagon was Home
The gypsy wagon was originally a large wagon drawn by a team of horses. By the mid- to late- 1800s, the wagons became smaller and did not need as many horses to pull it. In Britain, the Romanichals began to use the small wagons as living quarters; they called the wagon a vardo. The design of the vardo featured large wheels on the outside body of the van. This type of wheel made off-road traveling much easier.
The gypsy wagon was elaborately decorated, both inside and outside. The vardo was prized for its practicality as well as its beauty. The vardo was built in six main designs: The Reading, the Bow Top, the Brush Wagon, the Burton, and the Open Lot which derived their names from either the original builder or the town where they were first built.
The Burton wagon had smaller wheels and was thus not suited for off-road travel. The Ledge Wagon was a cottage shaped wagon with a living area which extended over the large rear wheels. The frame was supported by brass brackets and the roof was usually 12 feet high and extended over the length of the wagon creating porches at both ends. Iron brackets supported the porch roof. The walls were elaborately decorated with ornate carvings and scrollwork along the entire length of the wagon. The Bow Top was a lighter wagon with a canvas top supported by a wooden frame. The front and back walls were scrollwork and the tongue and groove of the wagon were painted green. The inside contained a stove, double bed and a table. The walls were decorated with the same scrollwork as the outside walls. The Open Lot wagon was the same design as the Bow Top but had a curtain instead of a door.
The Brush or fen wagon had straight sides with wheels outside the body of the wagon. At the back it had a half-door with glazed shutters and a set of steps, both of which were set opposite from the other wagons. The Brush also did not have a skylight on the roof. The outside of the wagon featured racks and cases that allowed the owner to carry trade items. In addition, three iron rails ran around the roof. The Brush wagons were colorfully painted in elaborate images and patterns. The Reading Wagon, also called the kite wagon, was the premier wagon of the gypsies. It was fairly light weight, had straight sides that sloped outwards and high arched wheels. The wagon was ten feet long with a porch on both ends. The rear wheels were 18 inches larger than the front wheels. In the early 1900s, the wagon began incorporating raised skylights and lavishly decorated thick beveled mirrors on both sides of the bed space. Cupboards and locker seats were added; windows in the back and side were shuttered and decorated. The decorations indicated the wealth of the family, some wagons featured carved gargoyles and lion heads and were painted gold or decorated extensively with gold leaf.
In the 1800s and 1900s, wagons and belongings of a gypsy who died were burned. The family was left with some possessions of china, jewelry or money, but the rest of the owner's possessions were burned with the wagon.
Interest in the Gypsy Culture Continues
The Gypsy Culture is rich but still maintains the air of mystery that so many find intriguing. The contributions to the modern world will remain in the colorful skirts and jewelry. The images of brightly dressed fortune tellers dispensing their wisdom to interested parties and gypsies lively dancing to gypsy music around a fire with an elaborately decorated wagon parked nearby will never fade.
The copyright of the article 'The Lure of the Gypsy Culture" is owned by Cheryl Weldon. Permission to republish "The Lure of the Gypsy Culture" in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.