Gypsy Women's Costume in the Renaissance


Old Marian, also known as Marian of Edwinstowe


In Medieval and Renaissance times, Roma were known as Gypsies (in English) as a result of their proclaiming themselves to be penitents from Egypt.  Their women adopted a style of dress which evolved during our period, but kept some elements throughout: (1) some sort of turban was worn (though the style of turban varied); and (2) a blanket, worn so that it fastened over one shoulder and passed under the opposite arm. The undergarments might change with time and place, but the draped blanket remained. Probably dresses were acquired in the towns through which the Roma traveled and, since the Roma may have obtained their clothing second hand, these gowns might be whatever the women of that area had worn years -- or a generation -- earlier. 

Narrative evidence

Descriptions given of the Gypsies' entrance into Western Europe in the early 15th C:

In 1422 an observer in Bologna described the Gypsy women's appearance: "their women went in smocks and wore a pilgrim's cloak across the shoulder, rings in their ears, and a long veil on their head." In 1427, they were described by an observer near Paris in similar terms: "most or nearly all had both ears pierced, and in each ear a silver ring, or two in only dress an old blanket, very coarse and fastened on the shoulder by a band of cloth or cord, and underneath a poor shift for all covering."  (Both translations from Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, Gypsies of Britain: an introduction to their history (London: Chapman & Hall, 1944). .

Evidence of art

Gypsy women are still wearing their blankets in 16th and 17th C. paintings that clearly show various details.

There were several ways of draping the blanket. In some Bruegels' works, they appear as striped blankets worn over both shoulders, probably fastened over one.

In other works, we see the blanket was draped in such a way as to provide a "pocket", wherein things could be carried. The painting of a Gypsy fortune-teller by Vouet (Fig 1) clearly shows a villain rummaging in that pocket, trying to steal from her. (In another contemporary painting, a man is removing a chicken from the folds of her drape.)   Manfredi used a similar "plot" in his painting (Fig 2).

In these paintings, we see the outer fold of the pocket is a distinct, different color, although this feature is not seen in all period paintings. In the Vouet painting, it's clear that the edge of the pocket is just a contrasting strip: a little of the dark blue inner surface is showing. Vouet and Caravaggio (Fig 3) show pockets with red edges; Manfredi shows a tan drape with a dark brown or black edge to the pocket; de La Tour shows one with a gold border (and another drape of heavy material with no pocket). 

The Vouet and Caravaggio paintings both show the drape is tied with ribbon or cord at the shoulder, just as described by the early 15th C observers.

The end of the drape depends on the length of fabric remaining after it has been tied at the shoulder. In the Caravaggio (Fig 3), the end of the drape (hanging behind the shoulder) ends at a point approximately level with the hip (as is barely visible at lower left). In a print by Brebierre (Fig 4), we see the lower edge of drape (hanging in front of the shoulder) ends at a point at about mid-calf. And in a print by de Gheyn, the lowest point of the drape appears just above ankle length.

Gypsy_dress/vouet fortune teller

Figure 1 - Simon Vouet, The Fortune Teller, ca 1618

Manfredi fortune teller

Figure 2 - Bartolomeo Manfredi, The Fortune Teller, ca 1605-1610

Caravaggio fortune teller

Figure 3 - Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), The Fortune Teller, ca 1594-1595

Brebiette fortune teller

Figure 4 - Pierre Brebiette, The Gypsy Fortune Teller, 1631 [detail]

Reconstructing the garb

To replicate this drape, I started with a piece of cloth approximating the size of a blanket. Current standard twin blanket size is 66 inches by 90 inches. I used a lighter weight material than most blankets provide, but still substantial -- nothing filmy. Still, if this were my only outer garment and served me as cloak, blanket or ground cover as occasion demanded, I might want the heavier fabric. Since I am "teapot" shaped -- short and stout -- my fabric was hemmed to be narrower, only 62 inches wide, but was 108 inches long -- an even 9 feet, or 3 yards.

To this rectangle, I added a 6 inch wide reinforcing strip (red) down the whole 108 inch length (dark blue), about 18 inches from one edge (Fig 5). I think the purpose of that strip was reinforcement, to keep the fabric from ripping when holes (for the cord to pass through) were poked into it and all the weight of the garment would hang from those holes.  I added ribbons, firmly attached to the edge nearest the strip. They were placed so that when the ribbons were tied together, the top corner of the drape ended at about the hip and the lower corner hung to mid-calf. For me, this worked out to about 27 inches from each corner, leaving a gap of 54 inches in between.

Layout of drape

Figure 5 - above, NOT to scale

 I poked holes through the reinforcing strip and underlying fabric and threaded the ribbons through the holes (as shown in Fig 6), and then tied all four together.  I pulled it over my head with the tied ribbons sitting on my right shoulder, sticking my left arm outside the drape.

Layout of drape - folded

Figure 6 - above, NOT to scale

End product

For final effect, see Fig 7.  I used a bodice something like that in the Vouet painting, but wore earrings, amber beads, and head scarf based on the Manfredi painting.  I still need a shift with a neckline that better matches the line of the bodice, or  a bodice that matches the neckline of the shift, or something in between.  But that's for the future. 

me, wearing the drape

Figure 7 - photo taken late 2004


The resulting garment has proved very practical. The pocket carries my pouch and any small purchases, and my hands are free for other purposes. It's easy to pull the back part of the pocket over my head in case of sudden showers. I can untie the ribbons and use the whole thing as a ground cover at field events or to wrap it around myself like a cloak on chilly evenings. For a woman of childbearing age, it would make a very handy sling in which to carry an infant and could be pulled up in front to provide privacy while nursing.

Next job: Figure out how to make those halo-shaped turbans!

Last revised 12/16/2005.

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