Gypsies, Travelers, Roma—Puzzling Wedding Traditions

I’ve sort of avoided watching the TLC program My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Something about the tone of the title, and my own sensitivity to the label “Gypsy,” kept me from it. There is also something of the Toddlers and Tiaras about it: families spending obscene amounts of money on things it’s hard for me to understand, and creating an almost absurd hyper valuation of outward display in a way that is emotionally or even physically damaging to the girls involved.

But last night I watched the Christmas episode. I’d like to say I was mistaken. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. It really disturbed me that, as the bride struggled to walk in her 200 lb. dress that was giving her bruises, and wore a jeweled tiara like a real princess, never did anyone mention how these people who live in what most would consider extremely modest circumstances afford it all.

I discovered I wasn’t the only one who wondered. An article in the UK’s Daily Mail had this to say about the gowns:

A Dress Weighing More Than The Bride

Gypsy brides don’t do understated. Their dresses should be eye-catching and back breaking. Imagine a walking blancmange, the colour of cough mixture, and you won’t be far wrong.

Comfort doesn’t come into it — these Swarovski jewel-encrusted puffballs usually come with 24 petticoats and a 20ft train, and can weigh up to 20 stone. A gypsy bride wears her wedding dress scars like a badge of honour.

Eye-catching and back-breaking: Dresses worn at gypsy weddings can cost up to £50,000, weigh 20 stone and have a 20-foot train

Thelma Madine, of Liverpool-based Nico’s Dressmakers, is the lady who has designed the majority of the dresses in the Channel 4 series.

She’s the Elizabeth Emmanuel of the gypsy world and, just like a royal designer, she won’t discuss her clients. Unlike the Emmanuel gown that ­Princess Di wore up the aisle, however, her bridal creations have included mechanical butterflies with fluttering wings and inbuilt fairy lights.

‘I’ve known dresses that cost up to £50,000,’ says Thelma revealingly. Before quickly adding: ‘I’m not saying I made them though.’

Cost: Astonishingly anything from £15,000 to £50,000

via My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: We reveal the £140,000 cost | Mail Online.

They estimate the total cost of a Gypsy wedding at around $220,000. That’s up with the priciest of weddings here in the US, and four times the average cost of a UK wedding. The article doesn’t answer the question of where parents get that kind of money, when most of them work as manual laborers and lead an itinerant life.

The other disturbing thing to me is the youth of the couples getting married. It’s not unusual for girls to be wed at 17, with their grooms only a year or two older. This is apparently all part of what is known as The Traveller’s Code. A book review in the Irish Times had this to say about it:

The Traveller code was strict. Sex before marriage was unacceptable. Girls were expected to marry before they reached 20. The family of the bride had to provide a dowry – or the marriage wouldn’t go ahead. Eloping meant leaving together for a night with a chaperone to confirm that no sex had taken place. The couple would return, in shame. To save their dignity, they would marry. A Traveller wife had one priority: to look after her husband and children. And she had to stay married, whatever happened.

via Trapped by the Traveller code? – The Irish Times – Sat, May28, 2011.

Sadly, it seems that the ritual of a traveller wedding could be the high point in a girl’s life. This very patriarchal ethnic group makes a beating on the wedding night if not mandatory, expected for the man to show who is boss. And with no sex before marriage, the youth of the couple isn’t such a surprise after all.

So, here’s a selection of photos from the show. I’d love to hear what other people think. Am I being judgmental?

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Bridget's massive wedding dress is arranged by her attentive pink-clad bridesmaids and dressmaker Thelma.
My big fat gypsy wedding (C4 Grab)

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