The Dynamic Equivalence Of Gypsy Fashion

Gianina lu' Manşonică of Sinteşti interviewed by Tita Chiper Our host's courtyard could be best described as transition in progress, accurately preserving each of its successive stages: it begins with two run-down foreign cars, and ends with an ashen tent proudly displaying the great cauldron, a symbol of ancestral nomadic life. The pig-iron water pump and the kitchen built as a separate unit evoke the suburban atmosphere of yore. In an otherwise pristine rural landscape, next to an enclosure teeming with turkeys and guinea-fowl, "industrialisation" is working at full blast in the form of a metal-smelting furnace. The house proper, raised in the 70's, could easily pass for a hangover from the late rococo: overabundance of wrought iron, stuccoed walls, and mock marble; each room has its own oil fresco reduced in scale to the size of a regular painting – "The Rape from The Seraglio", "Wagon and Oxen", "Still Life with Cantaloupe and Grapes". Modern, massive armchairs, thick carpets, a ceiling fan like the ones you see in the offices of prosperous companies. Gianina lu' Manşonică, daughter in law to bulibaşa Ion Mihai Pletos of Sinteşti, is introducing us to the intricacies of Gypsy fashion. She spreads before our eyes the dazzling palette of an apparently endless stock of clothes, exquisite in quality. There's no wardrobe as such to speak of. She simply takes down the clothes from the coat hangers arranged in perfect order on pegs all around the walls. She treats us to some excellent coffee, brewed according to the recipe she's inherited from "mama Bobocica" and poured out of the pot with ritual deliberation, so as not to "jar its heart" and distribute the strength equally in the cup of each guest. Presumably, the beautiful cups will end up in the garbage as soon as we leave, on account of having been polluted by the "unclean" people who drank from them, people of a different ethnic origin, that is. That's the custom dating back to their ancestors. Should we visit them again, as we're warmly invited to, we might find the bulibaşa's family moved to a different location, in the residential area of Bucharest, in a thirty-odd room pagoda currently under completion. To this end, Gianina lets us have her mobile-phone number, where she's available at all times: "these days, you're dead without a mobile and a car". As a highly active, entrepreneur, neither can Manşonică, Gianina's husband, disregard the demands of the times. Fashion in the long perspectiveEveryone knows fashion keeps changing all the time. Yet Gypsies seem to be wearing always the same style of clothes. What would you say, is there such a thing as a Gypsy fashion, or not? There surely is, how else, yet it's got nothing to do with what people would call by that name. No one ever cared to find out anything about our dress and traditions so as to know the truth. I saw on TV what they used to call "gitanne fashion" – not by a long chalk the real thing. There's no such thing as hoop skirts with us. No way. If you call it "Gypsy fashion", then where's the way we braid our hair, where – the colours, where – the petticoat we wear underneath? The petticoat is there for a purpose: it shouldn't show off dirt easily, red, for instance, is a good colour, and it's made of a more compact fabric you can't see through. There's no way around wearing a petticoat.Is there such a thing as a standard pattern for your skirts?No, we're free to do as we choose. We can either draw cords across the skirt length to form it into folds, or else pleat it, but it's a full day's work to pleat the five to six meters of material that go into a dress – you have to nail it to the table first, and then gather it tightly into pleat upon pleat upon tiny pleat, till you've had enough of it. Otherwise, you can make one of them skirts with a waistband, or "collar" as we call it, or simply fold the material by hand into loose pleats, and iron them over. I for one also wear three-flounced skirts, Spanish-style, you know; I see them in magazines, and my Mom sews them for me. As for the blouses, they're not part of the costume – we can wear any modern cut. Under thirty I can wear my skirt without an apron, and put my apron on only when I'm working, but past thirty, it just won't do – I simply have to wear an apron full time, and normal skirts to go with it, no more frills and flounces for me. What about the colours you wear, do they also have to change past a certain age?They're getting tamer, more subdued, sort of. But still beautiful, nonetheless. The darkest colour we'd choose is dark blue; black is out of the question, for it means mourning. Apart from that, we're free to wear any colour on earth, if it pleases the eye, that goes without saying. There are some young women, to be sure, who are not wearing bright colours; their skirts are plainer, and shorter, too. They're of the bear-taming folk. But the way we dress has nothing to do with theirs, or with the way flower-girls dress. Nor do our tastes tally with those of the tinker girls, or of the didicoi girls; this can be seen from the way they tie their headkerchiefs or the way they plait their braids. As for the girls of the wood-carving Gypsies, we've got nothing in common with them, nothing at all, they sort of bear a grudge against us. Mostly, we follow the style of the girls in Vâlcea, and the ones in Sibiu or in Gorj – as far as the dress of coppersmith-folk girls is concerned, it's them that set the standards. Apart from that, we all follow the style and the customs of our own folk. Still, from a certain age up, the apron is compulsory for all of us. When doing the washing, it's soaked apart from the skirt, in a separate basin. The skirt, the men's trousers, and the intimate underwear, all the things worn over the lower half of the body, that is, are on no account to come in touch with the apron, the shirts or the towels. It's an awesome disaster if they do – uncleanness spreads throughout the whole lot.Then how can anyone still follow the fashion with so many rules to observe?One has to consider where one is supposed to go, and then adjust one's dress accordingly. Let's say I'm dressing on a normal day: so what will I need? Intimate underwear, of course, the petticoat, a blouse – I'm rather partial to white lace blouses – no apron, a skirt, not pleated, yet quite full – at least six metres wide – and high-heeled shoes, but they've got to be stilettos. My headkerchief will have to be impeccably ironed, and my hair neatly plaited into braids. My Mother gave me one hundred skirts and aprons for my dowry, and I've had lots added to them since I got married; exquisite fabrics all of them, some brought from India by my father in law, some from Taiwan, some bought here, too, I'd pay as much as fifty thousand a metre back in the days when fifty thousand was a lot of money. Out of all my skirts, ten are my absolute favourites, to wear in the city, or when I go out in front of the gate. If I'm supposed to go to the doctor's, or anywhere among the Romanians, I'm wearing darker colours and a less ample skirt, lady-like, sort of. But I still keep my headkerchief on, the head covering is something really important. In Ceauşescu's times, good headkerchiefs came all the way from Japan or Iraq, expensive, but quite beautiful: I'd buy fifty of them at one go. Nowadays, they're also brought over from Turkey. But in the old days, whoever had a headkerchief from Iraq, or Thailand – you had to keep the label on – was truly somebody.Why is it that when you go out in front of the gate you have to dress up the way you do when you go to the city?Because I, as bulibaşa's daughter in law, will be closely watched by everyone: "there she goes". And they don't mean it bad, either – I'm supposed to be an example to them. People are on the lookout, and quick to pass judgement. Men's fashion is quicker to change, and no one seems to be making any fuss about it. With us women, it's not up to everyone to introduce a change. Let me tell you something. Before '98 no one would wear a handbag in Sinteşti. The girls of the coppersmith-folk in Sibiu or Vâlcea could get away with wearing one. Not us, though. The first to buy a handbag in Sinteşti was my sister in law. I was the next one. Then other women started buying them. Same with dresses: we're not supposed to wear modern dresses, you know, if we follow tradition. My sister in law had the guts to purchase a dress with buttons all the way down the front. I was quick to follow suit. But we can't just adopt any fashion, even if we like it. There's no way I could get me a dress with shoulder straps. People would say it's unclean, and ask me where I wash it. Am I going to pull it over my head, or what? But one is never supposed to pull a dress on over one's head, it just isn't allowed, it's a shameful thing.The sea, the seaStill, I see Gabi, your youngest daughter, is wearing a rocker outfit. Does this mean little children are exempted from the rigours of Gypsy dress codes?Oh, she's but a tiny tot, just started going to kindergarten. When she's ten or thereabouts, then she'll start wearing our traditional dress. Norms are not all that strict for children. Granted, after the Revolution things have started changing a bit for all of us. It's a different world, and we're trying to keep pace with the times. Truth to tell, children and men are quicker to adapt to new fashions than we, women, ever were. When they want to dress well, our men go to Steilmann's, or to any of them posh, expensive shops. It's Prima we mostly go to. Not so much to Unirea, though – it can't hold a candle to Prima. Men can buy anything to wear, just like the Romanians, but women are supposed to keep the custom even outside their Gypsy environment.Sounds a bit unfair, don't you think? Women are also getting about, don't they, they get to see things, and are bound to compare what they're used to with the new things they find out wherever they go.Now, if that's the custom, there's no way you can break it. One evening some three years ago, my husband and his cousin, Cristi, came up with the idea to leave for the seaside at midnight. Manşonică just got it into his head to leave on Friday and come back Sunday. We packed up our luggage, stuffed the car full of bedclothes, bundled our children, Cristi and his wife, Veta all in one auto, and off we went. We left around one after midnight, and at four in the morning we made it to Neptun. We were wearing Gypsy clothes. I'd had a stopover at my Mom's, and grabbed me a blue-and-red-patterned Taiwanese skirt, I also had with me some perforated boots, expensive stuff, five hundred thousand a pair is what they'd cost back in '95, the high-heeled kind that buttoned up, y'know. Veta looked like she'd drop any minute with fatigue, and terrified, too, on top of it all. Says Cristi, "No way you're going with me anywhere looking like that. How are we, men, to walk into the hotel with you wearing those headkerchiefs?" And he was right too, they were both wearing modern things, the children were dressed according to the latest rage, while the two of us still had our braids and headkerchiefs. I let my hair loose, we stuffed the headkerchiefs under the car seats, and walked into the hotel. The receptionists had no trouble figuring out we were Gypsies – our hair might have been hanging loose down our backs, but there was no styling mousse or hair spray or anything in it. They told us they only had free rooms on the thirteenth floor. We said we'd be sharing one room together, all of us; that's the way we're used to, staying close to each other. Then we changed the hotel bedsheets with our own, since we don't sleep in what others have slept in, no matter whether the bedding's been washed and starched, and went to sleep. In the morning, the chambermaid came, saw the hotel bedclothes nicely folded and set to one side, and couldn't figure out why. We put her wise, "Madam, we're Gypsies."In situations like that, do you declare your ethnic background like some sort of excuse, or are you just using it as proof of an alternative way of life?We're just telling the truth like it is. I'm flying off at a tangent now, but bear with me… I came to Sinteşti from Argeş, from a village where, for the most part, we lived among the Romanians. The first of our clan to build a house was tataia, my grandfather, when he returned from the Bug river in Transnistria, where they'd been deported during the war. I attended school for eight years, just like Manşonică, and never kept separate from the people around. When the time came for me to send Gabi to kindergarten, there was some backbiting, to be sure, not among my husband's people, among the other Gypsies in the village. They said I'd ruin my daughter if I send her to kindergarten alongside the Romanian children of Sinteşti. I stood my ground, though: "what difference does it make," – says I – "didn't I also go to school with Romanian children, and look, I married one of our Gypsies, and kept clean." Next thing I knew, some women followed suit and also sent their children to kindergarten; fifteen or so, in all. Then they came up with a new thing – since there's so many of us, how about taking our kids out from among the Romanians and putting them in a separate group? "What's got into you, women," – says I – "aren't they going to live among the Romanians for the rest of their lives anyway?" They had to cool down.So how's the little one doing at kindergarten?Oh, she's crazy about the Mistress, a Romanian, and while at kindergarten, she'd only do what "Madam" says. At home she'd still misbehave at times, but anyway, not as often as she used to. When she came home from kindergarten greeting me respectfully, saying "please", and "thank you, Daddy", Manşonică was dumbfounded.Why the surprise? Haven't you just said Romany men are quicker to adapt to "modern" times?They surely are. But only up to a point. When we went to the seaside, the folk in our village would speculate that we'd break our customs and undress in public. There was nothing of the kind (I only have the right to undress in front of my own husband, and Veta, likewise, is only allowed to undress in front of her own husband, Cristi). The men went shopping in Neptun for shampoos, sun lotions, inflatable rubber rings for the children, beach towels like I'd never seen before, big as blankets they were, bathing trunks and what have you, went for a dip in the sea, too, but didn't stay long, for the water was cold. They said it was better to go back to the hotel and let the kids splash in the swimming pool there. Veta and I lay on the sand in full dress all the time. Our husbands were laughing at us, but they wouldn't insist that we undress. They do know our customs all right. Yet the people around would stare, they signalled their dismay to each other, we were a curious sight, to be sure. Manşonică and Cristi kept pestering us, "Don't you dare speak Romany out here", but we simply couldn't bring ourselves not to – it's impossible for me to speak Romanian to my own people, I just can't do it.Were such details all that important in setting you apart from the others?There were others, too. Like, when we're having fun, we're having fun. When we have the money we enjoy splurging it on whatever. While at the seaside, there was no pleasure we denied ourselves. People would buy watermelon by the slice, while we'd buy the whole melon, whatever we bought we bought it by the bagful, not just one hundred grams or a piece. After two days, out of three million we were left with ten thousand lei when we returned to Sinteşti.Would you say that Romany people enjoy a feeling of greater confidence when they have money, compared to the rest of the population?We had money before the Revolution, too, some of us lots of it, even. But we were wary about showing it off, we'd be humiliated, and there wasn't any way of getting around it. Let me give you an example… The local policeman would walk into my parents' yard and just hold out his cap for us to fill it with hundred-lei notes. As soon as he left, my brother Ciprian would vow he'd be studying like crazy, read law, become a famous lawyer, and bring "our law" through. He didn't go to school for long enough, though. Now he's into something different. Anyway, today things no longer are like they used to, we're quite aware of it, too. There are visible changes here and there. Today a policeman would walk into my father-in-law's yard, to follow a lead, he'd say. Oh, but I know what he's driving at. "Got a warrant?", I ask him. "'Cause if you don't, I'll have ten TV stations zoomin' in on you before you know it." He asks for my documents, and I reply, "I'm Gianina Bratu, daughter in law to the bulibaşa of Sinteşti. I'm his secretary, and in charge of everything around here in his absence." "D'you have any education?" "Could be I'm more educated than some of them other people 'round here." Now if he sees I haven't lost my nerve, he goes away, there's nothing else he could do. He knows it, and I know it.In a Dazzling Light, Interviews Curtea Veche, Bucharest, 2004

by Tita Chiper; Gianina lu' Manshonica