Hello, Gypsies!

"Vaarry niiiice!"

So, I stumbled upon the sneak peek episodes of an upcoming series on TLC called “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.” I honestly expected to watch about 10 minutes, because the preview reminded me of “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which chronicles the life of miniature pageant divas. If you’ve ever seen an episode, you know how appalling this insight into their lives is, since they’ll eventually be the future of America. But, I digress.

Cue the theme music from "Psycho"

“My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” didn’t make me fear for the future of American culture and society. I actually found myself completely engrossed, mainly because I — like most people — know nothing about modern Gypsy culture. To be honest, I had no idea Gypsies still exist. Probably because their lifestyle is intentionally kept extremely secretive. But I found their way of life so interesting and strangely contradictory that, instead of changing the channel during the first commercial, I watched straight through the second episode to a full hour.

Both of these might actually be brides -- Anything's possible for the Gypsies.

The show started in the UK, where a large population of Gypsies continues to reside. Called “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” in its original British version, the show caught the interest of over 9 million viewers. The pilot episodes that premiered tonight on TLC featured Gypsies from the UK, but a little pop up appeared at the bottom of the screen asking, “Are you a member of the US Gypsy or traveller community?” and offering a website where you could sign up for the show. (The terms “Gypsy” and “traveller” seemed to be used interchangeably on the show — I’m not sure if different subcultures have different preferences. I mean to be PC. For the sense of ease, I use the term “Gypsies.”) I’m really interested to see what turns up in the US, since in my bubble of North Dakota, I’m completely naive to the fact that cultures like this exist.

The shows I saw both featured one bride and one young girl preparing for her first communion — the second most important milestone in a gypsy girl’s life. (Her wedding is the most important, often planned by Gypsy girls since they’re able to talk. Religion is a staple of Gypsy culture — It seems most are Catholic.) For these girls, the bigger and more over-the-top these events are, the better. Donning dresses that oftentimes outweigh the wearer, the Gypsies ensure they’re the center of attention on their big day.

This girl was actually a non-Gypsy marrying into the traveller lifestyle. She was assured hers was the biggest dress the designer had ever created.

Another unique thing about Gypsy culture is the average age they tie the knot. Most girls begin looking for a husband by age 14 or 15 and are married by 17. Teens often get dolled up and attend other Gypsies’ weddings in hopes of finding a future husband. From the time they can toddle, Gypsy girls are raised strictly to be housewives — It’s unacceptable in Gypsy culture for a women to go into the workforce, placing even more emphasis on the need to marry early.

Gypsy women’s emphasis on capturing the center of attention through their looks isn’t saved exclusively for their weddings. Going out on the weekends, these young girls definitely portray a much older image. They generally wear short shorts or skirts and cropped tops — even at age 7 or 8. Special occasions are another story. The picture below features a bride-to-be at her bachelorette party. Her mother and friends were all dressed similarly, supporting her on her last night as a single girl.

No, she's not the entertainment at the bachelor party -- She's the bachelorette.

Despite the reputation their clothing style might give them, Gypsy girls have extremely strict morals. They are closely sheltered by their parents and families — Dating is a strict process. Any kind of physical interaction before marriage would cause the girl to be viewed as “scandalized.” (Which is probably another reason for the early marriages)

Another element that stands in strict contrast to Gypsies’ emphasis on looking their best is their home life. They’ve generally moved away from the traditionally nomadic lifestyle they’re known for, but retain the potential to be mobile, shunning stationary houses in favor of trailers.

The bride in the pink dress featured in one of the earlier pictures goes "house hunting" with her fiance.

In light of my low expectations from the commercials, I’m proud that I can safely say I didn’t spend another mindless hour in front of the TV losing brain cells and faith in humanity. Although “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” undeniably has “big fat” entertainment level and shock value, it’s also worth a watch for its educational insight in to a subculture that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Ten million British viewers can’t be wrong.

4 thoughts on “Hello, Gypsies!

  1. hi-
    interesting entry. i stumbled on your blog when i googled “gypsies in north dakota”. why did i google that? because i’ve spent much of my adult life wondering if my quite vivid memory of an event from my childhood could actually have happened.
    i grew up in minot, north dakota in the 1950’s. i can definitely tell you kids in those days had a lot more freedom (i.e., i believe parents must have felt much safer giving their kids that freedom) to wander around on their own. summer vacations were FULL of little adventures, and i’m sure many of them were enriched with little injections of imagination- whereas today it would be little injections of…well, we all know where that is going.
    anyway, one summer day my wanderings took me to an area on the outskirts of minot i’d never explored before. i came to the edge of a sharply cut little valley (i guess what we called a coulee) that was fairly heavily treed, and from which several plumes of smoke were rising lazily into the summer afternoon air. i remember feeling drawn to check it out, and headed down the steep slope into the valley. i came almost immediately to a group of what seem to have been old school buses and trailers, all painted extremely colorfully (especially for north dakota in the ’50’s), parked in a not-exactly-random sort of grouping. the smoke was coming from chimneys on several of the buses or trailers, and, i believe, an open fire in the middle of the camp. i call it a camp, but i had a sense it was somewhat more permanent than an overnight set-up. can’t say why. livestock, maybe? can’t say how many people i saw, but i remember them being dressed almost as exotically as their trailers, although probably more practically. i recall there being a range of ages from elderly to a number of kids about my age. i also recall hearing a language that was definitely not english. now here my memory gets a little choppier. the people were friendly enough to me, but also seemed somewhat alarmed at my presence. i have another even vaguer memory of being fed, or at least being offered food, but i know that i was pretty squeamish at that age about any food not prepared by my mother- if so, god knows what exotic delights i missed out on that day- or not.
    anyway, i believe my visit was cut short quite abruptly, though not unkindly. i recall a woman with a head of rich, flowing black hair leading me back to a trail that led from the camp back to where i’d come from.
    i don’t recall if at the time i told anyone about my adventure, maybe not even my friends, definitely NOT my parents. why i would not have told my friends is a bit of a puzzle- maybe I tried and they just told me i was full of it.
    so- was i?
    that’s why i googled “gypsies in north dakota in the 1950’s”.

    • You probably did not imagine it. Gypsy caravans traveled through ND on a fairly regular basis back in those days and through the 60’s. My mother used to get a phone call and then lock me in the house when they were coming through the Mercer County area. I managed to slip by one time because I wanted to see them with my own eyes. Sure enough, there they were at the Farmers’ Union station. I can still see them vividly in my mind. Many of them ran concession stands that followed the carnival circuits, or else ran small carnivals.

  2. Pingback: What the heck are you guys searching? | A Nice Ring to It

  3. Pingback: What the heck are you guys searching? « A Nice Ring to It

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