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:
When girls attend others' First Communions, or weddings, they go dressed to the nines:
(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-Gypsies. Shockingly, 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!