Let me begin by saying that I am not ANY kind of an expert on medieval Romani culture, garb, etc. There are two reasons why I decided to address this topic. Firstly, when I began "playing" in the SCA over 12 years ago, I started out dressing in "gypsy" garb. I wish I had pictures! My garb was...well...I'll just say the word "terrible" would be an understatement! But, I did the best I could at the time, as we all do when we begin medieval recreation. The second reason I'm touching on this topic is because I have several friends who have asked me for information on period "gypsy" garb (although I don't understand why they would ask me ) and I felt I should do a little research on the subject to try and help them. Since "gypsies" have often been associated with the Middle East, and I research/create Middle Eastern garb, that is probably the reason why they asked me about it.
After finding the tiny bit of info I could, I have come to the conclusion that period "gypsy" garb has very little to do with Middle Eastern garb. This came as a surprise to me, as it might other people. The Romani have been traced back to India, where they migrated from about 1000 years ago for unknown reasons. It is believed they traveled through the Middle East, and may have "picked up" some their traditions there. This is completely based on conjecture, however. Much of medieval Romani history is shrouded in mystery. What I have found that this does not make them any less of a beautiful, unique, and interesting culture, and only has proven to intrigue me more.
The romantic image of the gypsy really is cool...beautiful and mysterious women with lovely coin jewelry, bedecked in bright scarves, gliding through the medieval city streets selling love potions and telling fortunes. Or tall, dark, and handsome men driving their exotically painted vardos down a forgotten forest trail, carrying their entire families inside, dressed in lovely embroidered vests, and wearing gold jewelry from all over Europe. The word "gypsy" conjures up nomadic people, traveling from town to town, selling their wares, entertaining crowds, and stealing from innocent bystanders who are distracted by the entertainment provided by gypsy musicians and the lovely lady dancers.
As fantastic as this image seems, for the medieval time period, it is only that...a fantasy. Medieval garb worn by the Romani; the correct name for the people known as "gypsies," (which actually is a VERY derrogatory term to them) does not resemble the popular idea of "gypsy" at all. In other words, "Esmerelda" (Hunchback of Notre Dame) is not period!
That is not to say that part of the popular "gypsy" image is not based on some fact. But many of the things we think of when we think "gypsy" come from the 1800's.
For example, from what little information I have found, the Romani did not use vardos during the medieval time period; but instead traveled on horseback, and lived in tents. They pulled small carts through the towns to sell their wares. The Romani woman were also fortune tellers during the medieval time period, as many paintings, (including the one above by Caravaggio) can attest to, but seemed to mostly read palms. The crystal balls, tarot cards, and love potions might have come much later.
The few paintings I have found that show enough detail to make Romani garb from are later period...from the 1500's. There are also some earlier examples as well, from the 1400's. If you were like me, and thought Romani garb was "sort of" a cross between Middle Eastern and Renaissance peasant, you will be surprized as I was. Medieval Romani garb looks nothing like this, but is still beautiful and "different" looking. The problem is, few people at events will know that you are wearing "gypsy" garb because of the incorrect views that has been cultivated for years. But that's okay...when I wear my period Middle Eastern garb few people recognize it either. That makes it fun though, because you can teach people something new, and strike up an interesting conversation!
Much of this information is based on conjecture drawn from looking at a very limited amount of paintings that actually depict Romani women. I tried to extract as many similarities in the different painting as I could to come up with enough information to make suggestions for Romani garb.
One of the main pieces of clothing for the fantasy "gypsy" costume is a peasant blouse or chemise of some sort. Period Romani women wore a chemise too, but it does not appear to have been worn off shoulder or low-cut. Mid-period paintings show "gypsy" women or fortune tellers in a white or light colored chemise, with a scoop neckline. Later period paintings show a chemise that is high-necked, and gathered around a neckband. The neckband ties, and the front is open in a slit to the breasts. Sometimes this neckband has embroidery that looks like blackwork. The sleeves are loose, and do not appear to have a cuff, but hang softly. These garments remind me of a Ukrainian/Russian style chemise,(except for the sleeves) more than anything else. They were probably made out of a medium grade linen, as very fine linen would have been too expensive. Off-white would be a good color, as pure white linen was rare, and again, very expensive because it was hand-bleached in the sun.
With the chemise, it is very likely that a skirt would have been worn, similar to a late-period lower class variety. This could be made of wool or course linen. Sometimes, Romani are pictured wearing a simple wool dress with detactable sleeves over the chemise. It also appears that they wore a sash at their waist, which was plain, and neatly knotted and tucked in.
Over these clothing pieces, a drape of some sort was worn, and pinned at one shoulder with a brooch, or tied. This garment is worn in almost every fortune teller painting I have seen. It appears that this was the piece of garb that said "gypsy" to the Medieval/Renaissance mind. It looks a little like a toga-style drape. Since the Romani migrated from India, this may be a garment that came from the Sari. Sari fabric could be a possibility for constructing a Romani drape. Sometimes they appear to be made of intricate brocades, and may have been made of several pieces sewn together; almost as if the Romani had collected many scraps of expensive fabric, and sewed them together when they had enough to make a drape. The drape may have been embroidered along the top hem as well. (See the picture above...the fortune teller is wearing a plain drape.)
Women are usually depicted wearing a white turban that is sometimes embroidered with blackwork. It also appears that they wore a coif that was tied under the chin, and worn underneath the turban. Sometimes these turbans can be quite large.
Very little jewelry is worn, although you can sometimes see little gold hoop earrings, and on occasion, a single bracelet. There are no examples of Romani wearing coins, bells, tassles, or any kind of a "hip scarf." I have heard from gypsy enthusiasts that the women "wore their wealth" or dowry in the form of coins on their clothing. Some have told me that this was so they could escape a town quickly. It appears that this was either not done until much later, possibly in the 1800's, or is just a myth. If anyone has better information on this than me, please forward it, and I will update this page.
In the very near future, I plan on making some garb for
someone based on the above painting. She is a new-comer to the SCA and would like to do a Romani persona correctly! How cool is that?!? I will post the pictures and patterns when I am done with it. Stay tuned!
The following list is a combination of websearches I have done, reading lists I have found, and information Duchess Mistress Roxane found from looking on several search engines. Enjoy!!!
The Gypsies, Angus Fraser, 1992, ISBN 0631159673, DX115.F72
Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, Isabel Fonseca, 1995, ISBN 0679406786,
Gypsies: from India to the Mediterranean - Donald Kenrick, 1993. University of Hertfordshire Press. ISBN: 2865650820
Gypsies: Peoples of Europe - Angus Fraser, 1994. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN: 0631196056 Pariah Syndrome - Ian Hancock, 1987. Karoma Publishers, Inc. ISBN: 0897200799
A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia - David M. Crowe, 1996. St. Martin's Press. ISBN: 0312129467 Historical Dictionary of the Gypsies (Romanes) - Donald Kenrick and Gillian Taylor, 1998. Scarecrow Press. ISBN: 0810834448
Handbook of the Vlax Romani - Ian Hancock, 1995. Slavica Publishers. ISBN: 0893572586 The Rom: Walking the Paths of the Gypsies - Roger Moreau, 1997. Key Porter Books. ISBN: 1550138685
Gypsies Their Life, Lore, and Legends - Konrad Bercovici, 1983. Random House Publishers. ISBN: 051741290x
Gypsies: An Illustrated History - Jean-Pierre Liegeois, 1987. Zed Books. ISBN: 0863560253
Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture - Walter O. Weyrauch, Editor. 2001. University of California Press. ISBN: 0520221869
Roma, Gypsies: Texts issued by International Institutions - University of Hertfordshire Press. ISBN: 192806158
English Gypsies and State Policies - David Mayall. University of Hertfordshire Press. ISBN: 0090045864X
We Are the Romani People - Dr. Ian Hancock. University of Hertfordshire Press. ISBN: 1902806190
All of these links have been tested and were working when they were posted. If you find a broken link, please contact me. :o)
The Patrin Web Journal: Romani Culture and History
http://www.gypsyloresociety.org/ - The Gypsy Lore Society
http://www.romani.org/ - Romani.org homepage
http://www.domresearchcenter.com/ - Dom Research Center - Middle East and North African Gypsy Studies
http://sca.lib.liv.ac.uk/collections/gypsy/intro.htm - Gypsy Collections at the University of Liverpool
http://www.romove.cz/roma/ - Roma in the Czech Republic
http://www2.arnes.si/~eusmith/Romany/ - Romany Language http://www.geocities.com/domarisociety - The Domari Society - Gypsies in Israel
Centre de Recherches Tsiganes - Centre for Gypsy Research at the Université René Descartes, Paris (English mirror site available from index) http://www.florilegium.org/files/CULTURES/Gypsies-msg.html
http://www.romove.cz/roma/ - Roma in the Czech Republic
http://www2.arnes.si/~eusmith/Romany/ - Romany Language
http://www.geocities.com/domarisociety - The Domari Society - Gypsies in Israel
Centre de Recherches Tsiganes - Centre for Gypsy Research at the Université René Descartes, Paris (English mirror site available from index)