My Big Fat "Gypsy" Dresses

After reading this you might be forgiven for thinking that I watch a lot of TV (somewhat true) and that I only watch TLC (definitely not true).  Still, I can’t help but write about TLC’s latest foray into a different/almost-deviant subculture, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

This show offers an “inside look” at life among the UK’s Irish Travellers, and a few Roma; note I put “gypsy” in quotations in the title of this post both because the show isn’t really about gypsies and because the term is actually quite offensive.  The show was a runaway hit in Great Britain, and it’s been doing so well here that a US-based version of the show is now in the works.

Yes, there are Irish Travellers in the US, where they mainly live in Southern states.  What brought attention to the group in this century was a scary video of a mother beating her 4-year-old daughter in a store parking lot in Indiana, back in 2002.  With an improbable family name of “Toogood,” the story brought attention to this reclusive community.

What struck me about the story was the revelation that Traveller girls get married very young (think 14-18) and their mothers dress them in a combination of pageant/ballroom dancing/stripper dresses (I was heavy into child beauty pageant research at the time, so this really resonated).  And the mothers then teach them how to dance in a sexy fashion to attract husbands. Yet, according to Travellers/Roma themselves, and many reports, premarital sex is basically unheard of, as is out of wedlock childbearing, as they are devout Catholics.

The UK/TLC series has truly exposed the bright, gaudy, over-the-top, and often suggestive wardrobes of Traveller females.  Here’s a little taste.

The gussying up starts young, but especially around the time of a girl’s First Communion:

(Photo: http://chateaudelu.blogspot.com/2010/09/irish-traveller-update.html)

When girls attend others’ First Communions, or weddings, they go dressed to the nines:

 It doesn’t stop as they get older. This is a shot of a bachelorette party (can you spot the bride and her mom?):
 (Hint: This is the bride-to-be):
Her wedding dress was my favorite shown:
Her bridesmaids’ dresses (I SO should have used these in my wedding!):
My second-favorite dress featured on the show had lights inside of it, along with moving butterflies. Someone had to follow the bride with a fire extinguisher in case she caught on fire though… (Interestingly, she married into the Traveller community, so her dress was even more over-the-top, presumably to prove her bona fides):
Some other amazing wedding wardrobing:

(Photo credit: Mark Duffy)

So why do Traveller women wear these elaborate dresses? I turned to a book by British anthropologist Judith Okely that had been sitting on my bookshelf since I learned about the dresses worn in this community– The Traveller-GypsiesShockingly, while the book is very informative, and devotes an entire chapter just to women’s issues, sartorial choices are never discussed. Given that the fieldwork for the book took place in the early 1970s, I’m left wondering if such elaborate dresses are a more recent phenomenon. The show’s narrator always says that these practices are stepped in tradition. I know bright colors are part of “Gypsy” tradition (think of painted, covered wagons), but I’m not sure Britney Spears-inspired bubblegum pink concoctions are “traditional.”

Clearly there is an element of the animal kingdom’s sexual mating rituals– get as done up, and as colorful, as possible to attract a mate. But I would think there is more to it than this. I’ve been starting to read other books about Travellers, trying to see if there is a link between Southern child beauty pageant cupcake dresses and Irish Traveller outfits; I have always found the link between Irish/Scottish immigrants to the American South and traditional notions of femininity and masculinity fascinating (best book I have read about this is Culture of Honor), so I suspect there is a deeper connection.

In any case, while I am sure you are all now ready to order your own bachelorette/bridesmaid/wedding/Communion dress a la “Gypsy” style, better be ready to write a BIG check. Those dresses can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000!

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Comments

  1. Ms. Cam says:

    I totally watched a marathon of this on Sunday! I've been fascinated by Travellers for awhile but it really peaked when I watched the TV show 'The Riches'.

    Also, grabbing= WHAT.

  2. Hilary Levey Friedman says:

    I have read about The Riches, but haven't seen it (though love Minnie Driver!). Worth renting?

    Grabbing is seriously disturbing. I mean, it's basically sexual assault.

    These poor girls are somewhat Cinderellas for one day and then have a lifetime of being the cleaning, cooking, under-appreciated stepsister.

  3. Christine says:

    When I lived in Romania I knew a lot of Roma, I was very close to some of them. Their weddings and homes are fascinating, and there are some really great books out there about them. In Romania they still live separately, they've become more integrated in other parts of Europe.
    Bury Me Standing is a great read (but not very current), with some interesting descriptions and photos of Roma weddings. They are very ornate, but nothing like the weddings on this TV show.
    I'm glad you mention the difference between Travelers and Roma. It always makes me cringe when people say they "got gypped," having no idea that they are slurring actual people.

  4. Ms. Cam says:

    First season of The Richies was amazing! Netflix for sure. The second season got caught up in the writers strike and the show didn't make it.

  5. Hilary Levey Friedman says:

    Thanks, Christine! Just added it to my Amazon cart.

    And, yes, in reality saying you "gypped" someone is a bit like saying you "jewed them.

    Ms. Cam- Do they show a wedding in The Riches. That would be amazing…

  6. Hilary Levey Friedman says:

    Elizabeth Kennedy Having watched the show, I found this post to be extremely interesting. I, too, have become quite fascinated with the lifestyle of Travellers. Great post! I love your blog!
    Tuesday at 3:11pm · Like
    Annie McCue
    how excited was I to see that you wrote about my latest guilty/intellectual pleasure. i have been utterly entranced/horrified while learning about this trailer park-meets-beauty pageant-meets-religious fundamentalism culture through the mag…See More
    Tuesday at 4:05pm · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman Sadly, I think new episodes are done for now. But we have T&T to tide us over… I can't imagine what the US version will be like!
    Tuesday at 5:41pm · Like
    Lindsey Mead I'm kind of speechless on this one!
    Yesterday at 6:50am · Like

  7. I am curious to know what they do with those dresses after they are worn. How could they possible fit in a trailer?

    • Lulu- That is a very good question! It’s true that it would be hard to store them in a “normal” house, let alone a trailer. I know in one episode it was said they don’t wear “used” dresses, but I wonder if they break them down into parts to sell (so the crinoline, or the bustier, for instance)? It also seems like it’s not common to use part for a daughter someday, or even for a communion dress. There must be some black market for parts, I’m guessing.

      Or, perhaps selling to child beauty pageant moms could become a lucrative side business!

      • LIttle Tinker Gal says:

        actually we normally keep the wedding dresses, but other less important dresses we cut up to make clothes for siblings and children or wesell them to other travellers, occasionally we sell them on ebay, they go for a lot as manypeople like having them altered so they arentso big and using them as special occasion dresses 🙂 xx

        • Thanks for reading and for your thoughts! When you sell them on ebay do you target them at other gypsies/travellers, or do you focus on others? If others, do you still say they were created for “gypsies?”

    • irish traveller 4 life says:

      if your wondering what we do with the dresses well here you go. i sold my one in the market and got some desent money so i could buy a bigger trailer. my mommy gave her one to my aunty. P.S i never wrote this i got sum cuntry biorr ta do it . <3 xx

  8. LIttle Tinker Gal says:

    hi, im an irish traveller ‘tinker’ from the uk and i loved this, finnally a website not slagging us off. btw its not all f us that get married so young, im18 and engaged but my fionce and dad have let me stay ay school, i got 13 A8-C gcses and am in yr 13 at sixthorm, allmy irish cousins stayed onat school till 16 or 18 apart from two and my fionce says i can go to uni as i plan to train as a special needs/disabled childrens teacher. thanks for the lovely article. shannon xoxo

  9. excellent post, very informative. I’m wondering why the other specialists of this sector don’t notice this.
    You must continue your writing. I am sure, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

  10. Excellent blog you have here.. It’s hard to find
    good quality writing like yours these days. I seriously appreciate individuals like you!
    Take care!!

  11. The show is about Romanichal, not Irish Travelers. The difference is huge. And Gypsy is not a derogatory word.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The good thing that has happened in Australia is that because of all the (negative) attention, regulators and organizers have been careful to make sure that the event was run correctly. Australian authorities were right that they couldn't stop the pageant from happening — as on its own there is nothing illegal about it — but they could make sure it was as safe as possible. Universal Royalty was expected to prove it was a legitimate business and issue receipts (some complained that they did not receive receipts for pageant fees when requested, but this issue remains unresolved). All pageant employees were also required to obtain "working with children checks." While it appears that in the future these types of events won't be welcome at town halls, they will likely still be held, particularly at hotels like their American cousins (if they aren't welcome at hotels then the link between "Irish Traveler" events and child beauty pageants becomes stronger in my eyes). […]

  2. […] it’s interesting to think how appearances in Irish dancing compare to the appearance of young, Irish Traveller girls). But you’d be […]

  3. […] Traveller clothes and customs (which I suppose have their own similarities with drag), as I’ve written about before. While TLC covers both subcultures, I’ve never seen them make an explicit connection between […]

  4. […] I’ve written before (in one of my most popular posts ever, natch) about the outlandish dresses Traveler girls wear and how similar some of these styles are to those worn in the child beauty pageant world. In addition to the outfits there are other similarities which were spotlighted in the UK version of the show. Those similarities include young girls getting fake nails and spray tans, wearing make-up, and curling their hair into impressive styles.  Both versions of the show feature girls with interesting names like Boo, Nan-Girl, and Pookie, to name a few; anyone who has watched Toddlers & Tiaras knows that many pageant girls sport unusual names or more traditional names with unconventional spellings. (The men featured on the show, especially the American version, have their own fashion sense as well. Think Pauly D’s blowout and spray tan from Jersey Shore, minus the real diamonds and gold.) […]

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