Mainstream fashion has always pulled from different cultures from around the world and throughout time, and none so much as within the realm of "gypsy" culture.
While many aspects of this style are nods to different groups around the world (and, worth noting, not all happy about the label "gypsy", but we'll touch more on that later), none are represented more both in style and spirit than the nomadic tribes of Rajasthan, India.
Their bright colors, piercing gaze, henna hands and traditional jewelry scream everything "gypsy", as they refer to themselves, and their fashion tells the long story of these people's history in the sand dunes of North Western India.
Traditionally, the Kalbelia and Bopa tribes have always lived nomadic lives. Traveling around their areas via camel and setting up tent villages where they land, the Kalbelia specifically are dancers and snake charmers, and the Bopa musicians and singers. The men, master musicians, perform songs using traditional instruments and fast paced beats. The women are dancers, adorning themselves in the brightest of colors and shimmering jewels, arms stacked with henna and bangles to accentuate the story telling movements of their hands and arms as they spin, stomp and spiral. Most memorable about these musical tribes is their relationship with one of the deserts deadliest animals, the cobra. Throughout time these people have been snake charmers, tamers, catchers and healers, using the venom of their deadly counterparts to make tonics for strength and power. As the women dance, they tell stories of myth and folklore, and their movements emulate the serpents they charm.
While these dancers and musicians may have been invited to perform for kings and high class families throughout time, they have traditionally been considered part of the lowest class of Indian society, also known as "untouchable". Their dancing, snake charming and music was a way to change their socioeconomic conditions.
Those who aren't performers live more traditional lives farming, raising cattle and camels, and performing other crafts.
What is most noteworthy about these nomadic gypsies is their innate and unique sense of style. Fashion is considered an important part of their culture, each tribe taking their recognizable bright and sparkling style and adding their own unique twist. Many will design their clothes themselves. When these tribes travel to meet up for celebrations and holidays, each tribe's unique signature look is meant to be a matter of pride and individuality. Music plays late into the night at these gatherings, with everyone dressed in their best. Dance offs are not uncommon in the evenings, with the youth showing off their latest moves.
I got a unique look at these tribes during my time in India while in Pushkar for the village's annual Camel Fair. Families from around the state made their way to the outskirts of this town with camels in tow. They were decorated, traded, sold and bought. A giant fair was erected, and thousands had flocked to enjoy the festivities such as the Indian Bride Competition (to which I was invited to participate in but graciously declined), the Mustache competition, camel races and more.
Beyond anything else I noticed about these people was their warmth, hospitality, and genuine interest in knowing me and including me in their activities. The women were quick to dress me in their clothes, do my makeup (because, as I was told, I did not wear enough), henna my hands, and proudly parade me around the fair. They were so eager to include me in their world, and truly honored and proud at how much I loved and praised their style. One young girl expressed to me "We don't have much, but we have our families, and we have our looks, and we have our happiness. You go home and show people what it means to be happy and to look good like us," as she placed a bindi on my forehead.
What else did this mean to me? Well, throughout my time in India, I was very aware and cautious of being "that tourist". Even now at home, I see this topic everywhere - where does the line of cultural appropriation land in the sand, and how can we be informed enough to honor that? These ladies taught me a valuable lesson. They laughed when I asked if it was bad of me to have henna on my hands, or wear a bindi - "We look good, you want to look good. So, you do like us. Here, I'll show you...." was exactly how I became the makeover story of the camel fair. These ladies were trend setters and they knew it - rather than being a point of contention, it was a source of pride, and one they hoped I would take home and share with my fellow fashion lovers.
It is, however, important to note that not everyone takes so kindly to the label of "gypsy". While the ladies of Rajasthan I met unanimously loved sharing their style and fashion, and call themselves as such, many European based "gypsy" families have taken offense to the stylizing of the culture while ignoring their history of persecution and being outsiders in their homelands.
Personally I take away this: the appropriation of a culture relies upon members of that culture feeling appropriated. While my Indian counterparts felt nothing but pride and generosity, some cultures around the world may not feel as such, and it's always a good course of action to stay informed. Best way to do that? Ask, just like I did! The honest answer is your guiding point to whether or not bringing pieces of a traditional culture to the mainstream is overstepping a boundary.
From the henna to the sparkling tribal jewels, these tribes are truly the pioneers of what it means to be, in their words, a "stylish gypsy". No matter where we are in the world, what class or cast we hail from, style and fashion perpetuate who we are in our souls, and are a portrait of who we are and want to be.