Gypsy Water ???

19 January 2024
Gemma Lees

Gemma Lees, TT’s regular Romani opinion columnist, on cultural appropriation, the use of the word ‘Gypsy’ to evoke a certain ‘vibe’, and the general public’s attitude to actual Gypsy-owned businesses

I was recently shopping when I came across a perfume called ‘Gypsy Water’. My instant reaction was (a) what the heck does this actually smell like and (b) I, as a Gypsy do produce water but I wouldn’t recommend dabbing it behind your ears. I decided to look a bit further into this perfume by company ‘Byredo’[1]. It costs £140 for a 50ml bottle and comes with a variety of complementary products including a £40 bodywash and a £34 hand cream. In the description of the perfume on their website, it’s described as ‘an ode to the beauty of Romani culture, its unique customs, intimate beliefs and distinguished way of living’. The scent is woody to ‘evoke the fever of…nights spent in the forest’. They ensure to capitalise ‘Gypsy’ in their product name but not later on in the description, a clear sign of a lack of respect for us.

In truth, the history of British Gypsies living in forests isn’t so warm and cosy. Gypsies of Epping Forest were forcibly evicted in 1897 [2] and Gypsies of the New Forest were corralled into compounds with no running water or sanitation in the Twenties before being forcibly resettled into council housing post-WWII [3]. As late as 2016[4], a Romany Gypsy family living nomadically around the New Forest reported ‘daily hate’, necessitating them to teach their children that the ‘daily abuse…is only words’. The majority of modern-day British Gypsies and Travellers chose to live a settled life either in traditional housing or sites owned and managed by local authorities. According to the Office of National Statistics[5], nomadism in England and Wales has waned due to, ‘the lack of authorised stopping places, likelihood of being moved on by police, and fears of prosecution’ due to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act established last year.

I contacted Byredo’s customer services to ask if they are Gypsy-owned and/ or developed their perfume in consultation with Gypsies. Their reply was measured, but very interesting. They highlighted that their founder is half Indian, (but not Romany nor did he grow up in or appears to have a familial connection to the Punjab region of India where Roma originated), and that the use of the word Gypsy ‘was undertaken to explore our heritage’. They are also ‘currently working with an organisation founded by two Romani women, to better understand the impact the word has on different cultures’, which is an incredibly vague statement, neither naming the said organisation, indicating the level of influence it has had on Byredo’s naming choices nor whether these women are actually paid consultants whose opinions are being taken seriously.

Using ‘Gypsy’ to evoke a vibe of freedom, travel, nomadism and a ‘boho’ aesthetic, (one which mixes patterns, wood, metal, animal hides and trinkets from foreign travels), is cultural appropriation. Other examples I found online were:

  • Surf Gypsy[5]: A clothing brand which makes flowy and crochet beach coverups.
  • Boho Gypsy Belle[6]: Another clothing brand with flowy dresses, fringed leather bags and oversized silver rings and necklaces.
  • Gypsabella[7]: Yet another clothing brand, this time with items such as tracksuits which have been cut up and laced back together and bikinis adorned with copious beading.
  • Gypsy Brand Tattoo Aftercare Cream[8]: A natural and vegan cream with a picture of a presumably Gypsy woman’s head on the lid wearing huge hoop earrings and a headscarf.
  • Hart of a Gypsy[9]: Natural and organic skincare which spells the word with a lower-case ‘g’ on its labels.
  • Gypsy Soul Jewellery[10]: Gemstone, seashell and fringed jewellery company which again spells the word with a lower-case ‘g’ in its logo.
  • Gypsies of Summer[11]: Another jewellery brand which ‘believes in the magic and healing powers of crystals’.
  • Wolf & Gypsy Vintage[13]: A company which sells various items such as vintage clothes reworked with lace and tie-dye, precious stone incense holders, sage smudge sticks and bizarre-looking expensive ceramics such as the ‘Squiggle Vase’.

If, in fact, any of these companies are Gypsy-owned, they are not forthcoming on their websites’ profiles and histories of their owners. I’m going to safely assume that there is at least some cultural appropriation going on here, but what is cultural appropriation and why is it harmful? The term originated in the 1980s[14] as academics began to discuss colonialism and its effects on non-white cultures. It happens when a majority group uses cultural elements of a minority group in a disrespectful, exploitative, or stereotypical way. There are four main forms that cultural appropriation takes[15]:

  • Exchange: A reciprocal exchange between two equal cultures in terms of power and dominance.
  • Dominance: A dominant culture taking elements of a subordinate culture that has had the dominant culture forced on it.
  • Exploitation: A dominant culture taking elements from a subordinate culture without payment, permission or a fair exchange.
  • Transculturation: A dominant culture taking elements from multiple subordinate cultures and mixing them up, making it difficult to either identify or credit the original sources.

It is obvious to me that the latter two forms of cultural appropriation are what is happening with these brands. Romany Gypsies have been oppressed both in Britain and globally for many, many years[16] . In Britain this began with the ‘Egyptians Act’ of 1530 which was aimed at ridding Britain of Gypsies and its update in 1554 which allowed them to remain so long as they gave up their traditional culture, settled and took up non ‘naughty, idle and ungodly’ occupations. Successive acts since then have limited Gypsies’ freedoms and oppressed our culture. Globally, Gypsies have been subject to laws which have enslaved, expelled or stripped us of our culture for over a thousand years[17]. Classed as ‘undesirables’ by the Nuremberg Race Laws, Gypsies were medically tested on, used as forced labour and murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis. The ‘Porrajmos’, (devouring) killed an estimated 25% of Europe’s pre-war Gypsy population. Surviving victims were not offered compensation until the 1980s and 90s.

The Minority Rights Group ‘World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples’ [18] outlines Europe-wide contemporary oppression of Roma people, including widespread poverty across the continent, human trafficking in Albania, police brutality verging on torture in Russia, segregated and inferior ‘Gypsy schools’ in Bulgaria, Greek Roma settlements which largely lack power and clean water supplies and Roma being barred from standing for public office in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Roma women in the Czech Republic were finally compensated for being forcibly sterilised in a eugenics programme between the 1970s and 90s only last year[19].

It’s very clear who has the upper hand and sadly, it isn’t often us. So stealing (or exploiting) elements of our stereotypes based on our culture and history for others’ profit is a true slap in the face for modern-day Gypsies. Transculturation is also definitely taking place here, conflating our legally-recognised racial group, (under the 2010 Equality Act), with sage smudge sticks which are used by Native American and Indigenous American Nations[20], crystals the use of which originated in ancient China and Sumer, (modern-day Iraq) [21], crochet which has its roots with Indigenous South American tribes, ancient Arabia or ancient China[22], incense which originated in Ancient Egypt[23] and is religiously significant to Buddhists[24] and fringed clothing items which originate to ancient Mesopotamia, (modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria)[25].

Many of the products also seem to link the word ‘Gypsy’ with the contemporary cosmetic industry selling points of ‘natural’, ‘vegan’ and ‘organic’, an industry which is set to have a revenue of £214 million this year in the UK alone[26] and which 56% of Brits now purchase from[27]. But none of this money is making it into actual Gypsies’ back pockets and that’s an issue when a University of Birmingham and YouGov poll conducted last year found that 44.6% of respondents viewed actual, (rather than marketing buzzword), Gypsies and Irish Travellers negatively[28]. The Equality and Human Rights Commission adds that some Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have reported hiding their ethnic identities in order to access employment and other services and that Roma are often in low-paid employment, face discrimination in agency work and work informally for ‘cash in hand’[29].

In the UK, according to the Office of National Statistics, salary rates are contingent on levels of education completed, with university educated people earning the most over their lifetimes [30], but this again is a bleak picture for our young people with the government self-reporting that only 8.1% of Gypsy and Roma pupils attained above a Grade 5 in GCSE English or Maths, only 58% stayed on in school after GCSE level and only 10.8% receiving 3 A Grades at A Level in the 2020-2021 school year. These are the lowest percentages of all ethnic groups[31]. Parliament’s ‘Tackling Inequalities Faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities’ reports that schools often assume that there is no use in teaching GRT kids, especially girls, that schools have no way of tracking children’s progression if they often travel into different local authorities and bullying is rife and not always taken as seriously as other racist bullying.

But these truths don’t sell dresses or hand creams, so the perpetuation of stereotypes based vaguely on Gypsy culture, blended clumsily with mysticism and other marginalised minorities’ cultural practices continues, wilfully ignorant of the pockets and culture these companies are plundering. Please don’t buy ‘Gypsy Water’ or any other product that our ethnicity is cynically and disrespectfully plastered on. Search out actual Gypsy owned companies and deny these brands of the only thing they seemingly care about, profit.

By Gemma Lees 

(Photograph courtesy of Gemma Lees)