• 2009 fashion news - Stow horse fair: gipsy fashion and horse trading


    05 June 2009
    Stow horse fair: From left, Barbara Nowell, Lianna Nolan, Mary Purcell and Kathleen Purcell
    From left, Barbara Nowell, Lianna Nolan, Mary Purcell and Kathleen Purcell Photo: TOBY GLANVILLE

    'I call myself a gipsy because that’s what I am. We live in trailers and have got about 20 horses. I grew up riding and I never use a saddle, so I’m natural to it, see? I know we’re different, but I wouldn’t want to be like you. I like standing out and I like being a gipsy.’

    Stow horse fair: Katrina Cassidy with her daughter, Bridgie
    Katrina Cassidy with her daughter, Bridgie Photo: TOBY GLANVILLE

    With that, April Freshwater, 14, turns away and screams encouragement to a man trotting a skinny black and white pony in a cart down the high street of Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire. 'Go on, Shawny,’ she says, and whistles as he rattles past, a clatter of hooves on tarmac. Watching him she grins, her lids heavy with eyeliner and big diamanté hoops glittering at her ears. It’s May and although there’s a sharp metallic chill in the wind and mud underfoot, she’s wearing a tiny, fluorescent-yellow vest, white pedal-pushers and bright yellow high heels. She doesn’t feel the cold, but even if she did she wouldn’t put a coat over her outfit. 'If I put a coat on I won’t stand out so well,’ she tells me. 'I like looking flashy. It’s my culture.’

    Stow horse fair: A young gipsy girl
    A young gipsy girl Photo: TOBY GLANVILLE

    Stow isn’t the sort of place normally associated with flashy dressing and extravagant displays of horsemanship, but April and Shawny don’t belong to Stow. Perched among the voluptuous undulations of the Cotswold hills, this market town grew rich in the Middle Ages from the local wool trade. Today it is chocolate-box pretty, famed for its mellow limestone streets lined with antique shops, book-dealers and tea rooms. This is England as toy town, although there’s real life in the form of a good butcher, a deli selling fancy bread and a well-stocked saddler, and because this is affluent Gloucestershire you’re very likely to see Elizabeth Hurley or Alex James popping into The Bell for lunch. It’s certainly very cute and very quiet, so tourists love Stow. But twice a year, in May and October, the town becomes a horse fair. Dating from 1476 when Edward IV granted the abbot of Evesham a royal charter, it attracts thousands of gipsies and traveller families from all over the British Isles.

    Not everyone in Stow welcomes the gipsies and there is some opposition to the fair. Detractors claim that the town has 'outgrown’ the fair and that it’s bad for its image as a tourist hot spot. Several of the shops and all the pubs will close for the fair day. 'It’s not that I necessarily think that they will steal,’ says one shop-owner, who preferred to remain anonymous. 'It’s just that it’s a good excuse to give my staff a day off, so we always shut up for the day of the fair.

    It’s just simpler.’ Gipsies have always had a reputation as the wild people of the world, of course, so this opposition is hardly surprising, and many residents view the fair with amused resignation. 'It’s colourful, you can say that at least,’ says one resident. 'The majority of us just accept it for what it is and know that there’ll always be the odd bad apple in the cart. And I think that some people are starting to realise that the fair is part of the town’s heritage, too, and should be valued for that.’

    For the gipsies the fair is a high point of their year. It’s ostensibly an opportunity for gipsy men to get together to trade horses, but it’s also a collective celebration of what it means to be a gipsy, and, freed briefly from the confines of trailer life, an excuse for the girls to really dress up. 'It’s our chance to show off,’ says Rosie Lamb, wearing a fluorescent outfit that co-ordinates with April’s. 'It doesn’t happen so often but we love it. All gipsy girls like showing off.’

    Rosie and April certainly stand out, but there’s stiff competition from the other girls, or, at least, from the girls who’ve not already found themselves husbands. Most will have planned their outfits for weeks; some will have had dresses made especially for the day, such as Kara O’Reily, in a black net skirt with hot-pink trimming, pink bustier and patent pink and black high heels. Her dad works on a tip and she lives on a site in Birmingham with her parents and five older brothers, Jimmy, Tommy, Peter, Matty and Paddy. At 13 she’s the youngest and her mother, relieved to have a daughter at last, has always enjoyed dressing her daughter. 'She wanted me to look good, you know? Wanted me to look the best.’

    Looking the best means slathering on layers of make-up, tottering around in vertiginously high heels, whatever the weather and however thick the mud, and squeezing their bodies, whatever their shape, into teeny bustiers or thigh-skimming dresses. Fluorescent colours are popular with the gipsy girls, but they love hot reds, crimsons and fake animal skins, too. Some of them are very beautiful, with deep dark eyes, shiny waist-length hair and enviable figures. Natalie Ward has travelled from Durham with her boyfriend Matt Howard. Wearing a short skating skirt with leopard-skin heels and a thick gold belt, she’s perfected a look to rival Victoria Beckham’s. 'I keep telling her she looks beautiful, because she does, don’t she? We’re getting married soon, start having kids and that,’ says Matt, a cage fighter and scrap dealer, laughing as his girlfriend blushes to her roots.

    'I’d like to have a big family,’ says Natalie. What does she dream of? 'Dream of? Just normal, I suppose. I like getting dressed up, getting to see my family and friends and that. It’s a chance to get out of the trailer. Most of my friends spend their time keeping the trailer clean and raising their family. That’s what every gipsy girl really wants to do. Raise kids and have a big family.’

    Raising a big family has always been a part of gipsy culture. Germaine Greer and her female eunuch definitely passed the gipsies by, because this is still a deeply patriarchal culture, in which men, with their wild horses and big arms and their pick-up trucks and greyhounds and fighting chickens, really are men. And the girls like it like that. Few of them work independently outside their family: they might help their dad with the horses now and again, but most shrug off suggestions that they might find employment. Why would they want to waste their time with that, after all? This is a traditional world, and despite their outrageous, garish costumes, the girls are surprisingly conservative in their ambitions.

    Natalie is appalled when I ask Matt if they live together and share a bed, and turns away. He laughs and shakes his head as I apologise. 'You embarrassed her. We’re not married yet, see, and the girls don’t talk about sex anyway. A gipsy boy wouldn’t want to go with a girl who had been to bed with someone else. There’s a lot of gipsy families in this country, and they tend to all intermarry. That way a man can know if a girl has been with another man. That’s the right way. They’re used to doing what their father or husband tells them, and they’re happy with it because it’s the way it should be.’

    One gets the sense that gipsy culture, far from being on the wane, is stronger than ever. This is partly down to evangelical Christianity, which has swept through their community over the past two decades. Traditionally, gipsies have tended to adopt the religion of the country in which they live. With the rise of evangelism in Britain, it’s perhaps not surprising that the gipsies, with their traditional values, would have welcomed it with such zeal. Several of the girls at the fair tell me to read John 3: 3 in which Jesus states, 'Verily, verily I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ There are several prayer meetings the night before the fair and on the day there’s a service in a big tent on the ground, crammed with suitably sparkling and colourful life-size Madonnas. At this service I meet Isabel Johnson, who is at the fair with her daughter Amadine, 24, a striking girl who drifts through the long grass in the field in a floor-length dress, a twist of turquoise at her throat. Isabel tells me that gipsy culture is becoming more, not less, traditional. 'It used to be the women who did most of the work, going out to sell pegs or picking fruit. We called the men kettle boilers because that’s all they did. But now we’ve been born again as Christians. It’s been good for our community. We’ve stopped selling heather and charms. We gave some things up for Jesus, but it’s kept us strong. The younger ones like the traditions, like cast-iron kettles and proper campfires. And the girls want big families again, and most of them will only marry another gipsy.’

    Amadine smiles when her mother says this. She’s here at the fair to find a man. 'I never want to marry out. I want a husband to be head of the family, and what he says is law, just like in the Bible.’ Is she happy, I ask. 'Happy?’ she says smiling, surprised that I’ve asked. 'I couldn’t be happier, my friend,’ she replies, then drifts off to help her father with his ponies.

    Amadine is not alone. None of the girls seems to crave fame or money or a big house. They want children, a nice trailer, a husband who treats them nicely and brings in the money. To the outsider this may sound intensely claustrophobic, but when you look at the girls cavorting around the fair together, falling in and out of each other’s trailers, minding each other’s children, comparing hair, make-up, husbands, it certainly looks like a culture mostly at ease with itself. It is celebratory. It looks good fun and the fun is generated by very strong family ties. The women like dressing their daughters up in satin and their sons in little old-fashioned tweed coats. They wheel them around in Silver Cross prams, before going off to buy Royal Doulton china for their trailers. None of them expresses a dissenting desire for anything different: it is what they’ve grown up with and it is the life they want for their daughters, too.

    Katrina Cassidy is at the fair with her sisters, Priscilla and Josie, and her daughter Bridgie, doll-like in pink satin with corkscrew curls and a pink fur wrap. A dark-eyed beauty with a lilting Irish accent and waist-length, dark hair, she describes herself as a full-time housewife, though she is proud of the fact that she stayed at school until she was 13 and can read and write. 'I want Bridgie to have the education I had, because a lot of these girls can’t read or write,’ she says. 'Now that’s not right, but I’m happy to be at home. Why would I want to work now I’ve got a baby? This is a good life. We were brought up as gipsies and we’ll always respect those traditions. Family matters to us most, but we love the chance to have a party.’

    Does she feel there’s anything she’s missing out on, I venture, such as the freedom to earn money for herself? Her face breaks into a big grin. 'Get away with ya! Why would I want that, now? I’m delighted to be a full-time housewife and I’m the one that gets to spend the cash, remember.’ Before she goes to find her husband she gives me the names of her brothers, Patrick and Andy Cassidy, who, she tells me, got through to the third round of the last X Factor. 'The boys have beautiful voices, so we’re really pleased for them.’

    I ask her if she sings and she laughs again. 'Of course I sing. All gipsies sing, but I’m told I have a real talent. But I chose to baby-sit the day of the audition, so what can I do? This is my life.’ With that she totters away through the grass in her studded mules, a blue fox-fur wrap around her shoulders, gold bracelets jangling at her wrists.

    There’s a visceral energy to Stow Fair that’s hard to ignore; it’s exhilarating, but by the end of the day I feel ragged and slightly emotional, too. I almost feel as if I’m missing out, and that it is I, with my bills and mortgage and work, who has got it wrong. It’s a deeply celebratory event and the girls I talk to look happier than most of my friends. On the way out I see April again, riding a big black horse. 'I’m selling him for me dad.

    I can do anything I want, see? I can work if I want, sell horses and that, but when the time comes to take a boy I’ll probably stay at home and raise kids and make the same promise that my mum made to my dad. It’s fun being a gipsy and sometimes I think that girls in normal culture want to be like us. We’ve got the life we want. Why should we want anything else?’

     

    (Telegraph fashion news)

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