“I can honestly say, I don’t think you’ve ever lived until you’ve been to a traveller’s wedding,” says dressmaker Thelma Madine. And with the return of Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings exploring the weird and wonderful weddings of Britain’s Romany gypsy and Irish traveller population, it’s easy to see why.
The obvious spectacle in this series is the completely over-the-top dresses, from a seven-year-old swaddled in an enormous pink marshmallow of a frock, to teenage brides who insist on huge fantasy-inspired gowns so heavy that they make them bleed. This week’s bride, sixteen-year-old Josie, has a dress so enormous that her entire eleven-strong family could easily hide underneath it, but for the thigh-high front which shows off her garter and underwear.
This community’s dress sense is at complete odds with what the rest of society would consider to be moral; it seems the sluttier the better. With all their highly sexualised bumping and grinding, it’s hard to believe that the gypsy way of life actually demands incredibly high moral standards. Sex before marriage is an absolute no-no, and every meeting with boys is chaperoned for fear of becoming “scandalised”.
It’s not just their morals that are important, but also their old-fashioned family values, which they are proud of and keen to preserve. Women stay at home and men go out to work. Of course the problem with this kind of set-up is that it makes women incredibly dependent on their husbands, and as Josie prepares to leave the security of her parents’ house in Liverpool to live with her new husband’s large and relatively unknown extended family on a caravan site in London, one can’t help feeling that she’s walking into a very vulnerable and isolated position.
Fifteen-year-old Cheyenne hopes for a loyal husband who “don’t beat you” [sic]. Cornered by a boy at Josie’s wedding in want of a kiss, he drags her off outside alone in the dark in a practice known as “grabbing”. Having had her begging and screams ignored, the sparkle in her eye has gone and her voice is shaking, but she seems to shrug it off. “That wasn’t a violent grab, I’ve had much worse than that” she explains. “It’s not nice at all, but you just have to live with it.”
And there we have the terrifying reality of the treatment and expectations of gypsy and traveller girls. Amongst the amusing, tacky extravagance of their dresses, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings perhaps unwittingly exposes a deeply disconcerting issue in the form of ritualistic sexual harassment of girls who are yet to reach adulthood. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go unnoticed.