Ethnic Clothes: The Gypsy/Roma

Figure 1.--The picure here is a Hungarian Gypsy boy named Milane Petrovich, and were taken by the renowned equine photographer Robert Vavra. They appered in the children's book "Milane" which was published in the Netherlands in 1969. As a bit of trivia, at Vavra's encouragement, Milane studied art, and became a rather successful artist. He has had showings both in Europe and the United States.

The Gypsys or Roma as they preferred to be called are nomadic people found tgroughtout Europe since 15th century. They are believed to have at least in part originated in India and speak an Indo-Iranian language known as Romany. The Roma throughout Europe have resisted assimilation and clung to their own customs. They are generally seen as traveling in caravans and made a living through trading. There impact was especially important in Hungary and Romania as well as various other parts of the Audto-Hungarian Empire. They were also important in Spain. Their impact has been flet in both Europeasn dance and music. They were targeted by the NAZIs in the Holocaust dring World War II. The most typical dress is the brightly woman's colored outfit. There is not an actual traditional children clothes. Often children wear old clothes and go barefoot. In folk festival they wear very colored clothes.


The Gypsies are nomadic people found throughtout Europe (since the 15th century). We note many diferent names used. They preferred to be called Roma as Gypsey is considered a peorative term. By Roma the Gypsies mean "Free Men". There are different terms used in various countries, but in most cases they come from a Greek root word which has been variously translated. The Gypsies first appeared in Europe in areeas controlled bt the Byzantine Empire which until the Arab outburts and the rise of Islam conriolled much of the Middle East and North Africa. The Italian name 'Zingaro/Zingari' goes back to middle ages. And it was the probable origin of the French Tsigane, the Portuguese Cigano, the Romanian Tigan, the Hungarian Cigány,and the German Zigeuner. The word Zingaro or Zigano probably comes from a Medieval Greek term Greek Ατσίγγανοι (Atsínganoi) a tribe from Anatolia. There are, however, other hypotesis. Especially, some scholars think that the word comes from the Greek Αθίγγανοι (Athínganoi), the name of an heretical sect that Christians saw as untouchable. Another source sees a relationship with socery. The other French word, Bohémien, comes from Bohemia, a country where many Gypsies live. The English word 'Gypsy' and the Spanish "Ginato' come from Egyptian. That comes from the legend that they came from Egypt. The first written testimony of the Gypsies in Italy (1422). A group of about 100 Gypsies went to Bologna. Their leader introduced himself as Andrew Duke of Egypt with a group of pilgrims. This was an effort to to be well received in Western Europe. Ironical, Gypsies today complin that the name is pejorative and want to be called Roma.

Indian Origins

Gypsies may have originate from the Indian subcontinent, perhaps the Sind region now in Pakistan. Ths was completely unknown to Europeans until; the 19th century. It was generally believed that the origins were Egypptin or elsewhere in th Ottoman Empire (former Byzabtine lands). The term 'Gypsey' was a corruption of the term for Egyptian. Comparisons between the various dialects of Gypsy and Indian languages such as Sanskrit, Prakrit, Marathi and Punjabi, to cite a few, have firmly established the Indian origins of the Gypsy. The first indication was linguistic. The Rom language is reportedly close to the older forms of these languages. The three tribes of Rom (Sinti, and Kale) all appear to have originated on the sub-continet. We do not know if DNA tests have been done. The reason they abandoned their native land of India is still a mystery. Ine author suggests that it was the policies of Hundu rulers fighting Muslim invaders. [Hancock] This ay have been a factor, but some sourcesdate the ininital migration even earlier.

Migration West

It is probable that the Gypsy migration from India passed through Persia (around the 9th or 10th century). We are not yet sure just why some migrated out of India. They also appeared in Armenia. Here fleeing the Seljuk Turks, they migrated into the Byzantine Empire. Moving within the Byzantine Empire they moved west into the Balkans. Here they dispersed, but Romania and Hungary becamne important centers. They reached Wallachia (1385) and Moldavia (1370) ahead of this area falling to the Ottoman Turks. Other groups also moved through India to Gujarat and south of Delhi. Gypsy populations can still be found along all these migration routes. Various groups penetrated into the West, both by way of Egypt and by the pilgrim's route. Gypsies arrived in Western Europe (around 1417). They appeared in Paris (1427). The early European descriptions of the Rom are od people with dark skin and black hair. The numbers of the Rom entering Europe were relatuvely small. As a result of inter-marriage with Europeans over time, the Rom today are a more diverse people than originally ledt India or even arrived in Europe. Rom can be found with fair skin and light-colored hair. In America and in Australia Gypsies arrived among the deported and the colonists; later they established migratory flows with these regions.


Gypsys speak an Indo-Iranian language known as Romany. There are many spoken dialects as the Roma have been affected by the prevalebnt language in the countries in which they have lived. The language helps to trace the origins of the Roma. The root language is ancient Punjabi, or Hindi. The spoken Romani language is varied depending on the prevalent language in the different countries where the Roma have lived. There are common words share by all Romany dialects. The Roma have three basic dialects which are mirroed by language differences. The Domari dialect to the Dom is prevalent in the Middle Eas and Eastern Europe. The Lomarvren dialect of the Lom is prevalent in Central Europe. The Romani dialect of the Rom is prevalent in Western Europe. There is no standard Romani written language, although the Linguistic Commission of the International Romani Union is working on this peoject.


There are four Rom "tribes". The Rom refer to these tribes as nations (natsiya), of Roma: the Kalderash, the Machavaya, the Lovari, and the Churari. W have also seen them referred to as ethnic groups. The Rom groupings, however are more complicated than just the basic four tribes. Other Rom groups include the Romanichal, the Gitanoes (Calé), the Sinti, the Rudari, the Manush, the Boyash, the Ungaritza, the Luri, the Bashaldé, the Romungro, and the Xoraxai.

County Trends

The Roma throughout Europe have resisted assimilation and clung to their own customs. Relations between local populations and Gypsies It is known that at the beginning the reception was good because the mysterious nature of their origin made a profound impression on Medieval society. In the space, though, of a few decades curiosity was transmuted into hostility as a result of their very different way of life from that of the sedentary population. The European prejudice against Gypsy gradually became more marked discrimination, and then persecution. They are generally seen as traveling in caravans and made a living through trading. There are especially associated with southern Europe, particularly the Balkans. They were esoecially important in Romania and Hungary. Hungary for several centuries was associated in one way or another with Austria. The Austrian Empire evolved into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Tsarist Russia developed a multi-national empire, Russia also acquired a population of gypsies. The attituudes and policies of these countries changed over time. At times there wre periods of culturral tolerance. At other times there was severe repression and efforts at forced assimilation. The Roma spread throughout Europe, although the numbers and cultural impact in Western Europe tended to be less than Eastern Europe. They were also important in Spain. Their impact has been noted in both Europeasn dance and music. The Roma were strongly affected by World War II as many countries with important Roma populations were occupied by the NAZIs. Under the NAZIs. the Roma were prcecuted. Many were sent to the concentration camps. The NAZIs were unsure at first what to do with them, but then began gassing them like the Jews. It is calculated that a half million Gypsyes were killed during the Holocaust.


T he most famous gypsy dances in the world are being performed in Andalucia, in the south of Spain. The Spanish gypsies have been most prominent in this type of dance, song and guitar music for centuries. I don't know much about gypsy dances in Southeastern Europe. The Gypsies possibly followed more or less the music and dances of the people in who's midst they were living. A Dutch reader writes "I remember a famous Romanian gypsy band as a boy, Georges Boulanger (in spite of his French name he was a real gypsy from Romania). There were others: Kovacs Lajos and Barnabas von Geczy in Hungary.


We do know that gypsey music has influenced some important Austrian and Hungarian composers. Pablo de Sarasate comes to mind with his beautiful "Zigeunerweisen" (Gypsy Airs). Also Johannes Brahms, who departed from his usual North-German compositions to write some stirring "Hungarian" walzes and of course, Franz Liszt, who listened to Gypsy music as a boy in Hungary and who proclaimed his Hungarian Rhapsodies to be authentic folk music, a mistake that later was corrected by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly who composed the real thing: Magyar-inspired melodies. Many other (lighter) composers used gypsy music in their operettas: Johann Strauss, Franz Léhar, Emmerich Kalman and Leo Fall. One of Strausses operettas was even called " Der Zigeunerbaron" (The Gypsy Baron), Léhar wrote one with the title "Zigeunerliebe" (Gypsy Love) and Kalman "Der Zigeunerprimas" (a primas is the first violinist in a Gypsy orchestra).

The Holocaust

The Jews were the best known, but not the only NAZI targets. There were also the Gypsies. The NAZI antipathy toward the Jews was less intense than that toward the Jews. It was also less racially based. NAZI pseudo science claimed that Jews were diseased carriers and polluters of the Aryan races. The attitude toward the Gypsies was more that they were useless people, much like the handicapped people targeted by the T-34 program. The NAZIs were probably incluenced by complaints by civic officials of gypsies, especially petty crime. I believe the arrest of the gypsies began NAZI officials had really decided what to do with them. I'm not sure when the decession was taken to begin killing them. The NAZIs begin arresting German gypsies and confining them to the Dachau concentration camp (July 12, 1936). Confinement conditions were not as punative as they would later be for Jews. The SS sent German gypsies and gypsies from German-occupied countries to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the so-called ‘gypsy camp’ (March 1942). The SS liquidated the gypsy camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau (August 1, 1944). All 6,000 gypsies at Auschwitz were gassed. This was one of the last actions at Auschwitz before the SS began destroying as the Red Army approached.


The most typical dress is the brightly woman's colored outfit. There is not an actual traditional children clothes. Often children wear old clothes and go barefoot. In folk festival they wear very colored clothes. Men more commonly dress like local people. Today in Italy children wear casual clothing, when the parent can provide it. In everyday life they wear mostly old garments, often dirty. However in their camp and sometime also in the village streets during summertime you can see little children without clothing. This was common everywhere till some year ago. An Italian reader writes, "About 10 years ago I met a gypsy family in a general store. They were shopping. There were three little boys. The two older (about 8 and 6) wore only shorts (they were bare-chested and barefoot). The younger (2 or 3 years old) was naked but he had a big golden necklace. Some years ago I read in a book about gypsy custom, written by a Gypsy: 'A gypsy mother put clothing on her children only when is too cold or in the presence of important people.' "

Costume Photography

We have noted several images of European children in Rom folk dress. These were not photographs of Rom childre, but rather other Europan children dressed up in novelty outfits. This seems to have been most common in Austria, Germany, and Hungary. Almost all the images we have noted are pre-World War I. We believe that this becomes much less common after the War because along with the rise of Fascism, concepts of nationality and race become more hardened in Europe. Most of the images we have seen are simple costume portraits, but we have found some which deal with dance.


Hancock. Ian. "Origins of the Romani People".


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Created: 6:26 AM 3/21/2005
Last updated: 9:04 PM 10/31/2012