Boho - Fashion History and Bohemian Style

Updated on July 27, 2017
Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Rosetti's Bocca Baciata is a perfect example of a bohemian woman.
Rosetti's Bocca Baciata is a perfect example of a bohemian woman. | Source

200 Years of Boho

Bohemian style has, for over 200 years, been an exotic alternative to the accepted fashions of a given period. Generally associated with artists, writers, and intellectuals, bohemian culture incorporates various ethic clothing styles, as well as historical costume.

Bohemian style consists of loose, colorful clothing and has been known as boho chic, hippie style, and Aesthetic dress. With their long flowing hair and rich, though threadbare fabrics, bohemians stand out in a crowd representing a colorful counterculture based on creativity, poverty, and an indifference to social structures and traditions.

"Gypsy Woman" is the name of this painging
"Gypsy Woman" is the name of this painging | Source

Origin of the Bohemians

The Bohemians, as a counterculture, appeared in France after the French Revolution. Deprived of the former system of patronage, where wealthy clients supported the arts, artists were plunged into poverty. Many took up a nomadic life style, lived cheaply, and wore worn out and unfashionable or used clothing.

Formerly, an artist was seen as a skilled and talented crafts person. But the Romantic Movement of the late 18th century rejected the confines of bourgeois life and the former importance placed on reason, to embrace the imagination.

A new cult of personality emerged with the artist as hero and individual style expressed in the way one dressed. An artist became a special type of person, not merely a crafts person, but a kind of eccentric genius whose creativity was displayed in the way they lived and looked. The artist himself (or herself) was a piece of art.

People compared the new artistic types to wandering Gypsies and believed that Gypsies originated in Bohemia, an area of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. So, they came to refer to artists and intellectuals as Bohemians. Gypsy was a European term for the Romani people, an ethnic group with Indian origins who had migrated north. The word Gypsy, derived from the word Egyptian, which many thought the actual home of the nomadic people who were often social outcasts that lived outside the mainstream. Today, the word "Gypsy" is seen as derisive and offensive to the Romani people.

Bohemian Life Becomes Its Own Kind of Establishment

By the 1830's, the French Bohemian art crowd and the Romantics embraced medieval and oriental clothing styles. With their colorful fabrics, long flowing hair, and wide brimmed hats, the artistic culture did come to resemble the classic view of the Romani people.

The novelist Henri Murger wrote tales about the people that he called Bohemians, centering on a group of artists and intellectuals in threadbare coats, old shoes, and a general look of dishevelment. The stories inspired Puccinni's famous opera, La Boheme.

Bohemian style evolved into a cult of the individual, a person whose very appearance became a work of art with carefully planned outfits and accessories. The word bohemian suggested a sense of arcane enlightenment, sexual freedom, and poor personal hygiene.

Bohemian life rejects materialism, private property, and centers on creativity and communal living. Often associated with the use of drugs and alcohol, bohemians ignore social convention, centering their lives on art.

Moments from La Boheme

Bohemian style 1857 - Sophie Gray - Painting by John Everett Millias 1857
Bohemian style 1857 - Sophie Gray - Painting by John Everett Millias 1857 | Source

Bohemians in the 19th Century - The Aesthetic Movement

In the 19th century, the Aesthetic Movement became a type of bohemian life style. The Aesthetics rebelled against the rigid social constraints of the Victorian era and embraced a style based on the clothing of the past, particularly medieval dress and oriental designs.

Believing that the mass production of the Industrial Revolution was dehumanizing, the Aesthetics strove to encourage the old techniques of the Middle Ages with individually crafted goods. Clothing was loose and soft, using fabrics colored with organic dyes and decorated with hand embroidery. The Pre-Raphaelite artists of the day rejected corsets, crinolines, and the stiff bodices and restrictive clothing of Victorian fashion.

The Bohemian - painting by Renior
The Bohemian - painting by Renior | Source
Hippie style or boho chic
Hippie style or boho chic | Source

Elements of Bohemian Style

Bohemian style, now referred to as boho chic, has come down through history, reappearing as beatnik style and in the hippie culture of the 1960s. For 200 years, bohemian style has consisted of several fashion elements.

  • Loose, flowing clothing made of natural fabrics
  • Less restrictive garments worn without corsets, bras or other restrictive elements
  • Loose, flowing hair
  • Colorful scarves worn at the neck, on the head, or instead of a belt
  • Peasant style clothing including tunics, loose trousers, boots, and sandals
  • Used or worn clothing
  • Oriental elements including robes, kimonos, and the ethnic designs of Persia, India, Turkey, and China
  • Mixing historical elements of medieval clothing with ethnic styles
  • Layering
  • Matching of garments in a nontraditional manner, such as mixing prints, or unusual color combinations
  • Multi strands of beads, several bangle bracelets, and the wearing of unusual, hand crafted, or unmatched jewelry
  • Large dangle or large hoop earrings
  • Broad brimmed hats
  • Patched clothing
  • Paisley, flowered fabrics, ruffles, lace edged sleeves
  • A general disregard for tidiness and uniformity of dress
  • A look of contrived dishevelment

Hippie at the Rainbow Gathering
Hippie at the Rainbow Gathering | Source

Hippies Galore

Jane Morris
Jane Morris | Source

Bohemian Icons

The Rainbow Gathering is an annual meeting of like minded individuals with a Bohemian bent that reject capitalism and materialism and embrace utopian ideals, the creative life, environmentalism, and diversity.

The Hippie Movement of the late 1960s incorporated Bohemian ideals. Centered on creativity of life and dress, hippie style included elements of historic costume, ethnic dress, and a rejection of mainstream life. In the clip from the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, Country Joe and the Fish perform to a crowd dressed in classic hippie style.

Greenwich Village, New York or The Village was a gathering place for impoverished artists and writers in the 20th century, a haven for the creative community as a distinctive minority group.

The Left Bank In the early 20th century, the Montparnasse area of Paris France was a hub of creativity that attracted artists, writers, and intellectuals. Here, people like Marc Chagall, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse, and others were able to live cheaply, meeting in bistros and restaurants to share ideas.

La Boheme and the Musical Rent - The musical Rent is based on Puccini's opera La Boheme. The story revolves around a group of artists living the Bohemian life and their struggles with poverty and disease.

Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle's first short story featuring Sherlock Holmes included Doctor Watson's description of the famous fictional detective's "Bohemian soul."

Paul Poiret - The early 20th century fashion designer reworked a variety of ethnic designs for Western fashion. His use of elements of Russian peasant costume, Middle Eastern, oriental, and historic dress introduced Bohemian concepts int high fashion that eventually bled into mainstream fashion.

William and Jane Morris - William Morris was a designer who created alternative textiles for clothing and interior design, known for his involevment in liberal socialism, historic preservation and known as an early environmentalist. He also designed clothes for his wife, Jane Morris, a model who became an icon of the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements in her loose, medieval style dresses and abundant long hair.

Dorelia McNeill was a model for the artists Gwen and Augustus John in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Augustus and Dorelia lived a nomadic life in a caravan while he painted her in long, loose skirts and scarves as they lived in a personal Bohemian utopia.

Dorelia McNeill
Dorelia McNeill | Source

Modern Bohemian or Hippie Style


20th Century Bohemian Style

Basically unchanged for many years, bohemian style came to be associated with young people hoping to distance themselves from the materialistic culture of past generations. Bohemian style gave birth to more modern counter culture styles. Beatniks, with their black turtle necks and striped shirts took on a more austere tone of dress. Hippie style introduced a note of childhood into the mix by incorporating cowboy and Indian styles as well as short, girlish skirts.

But as mass media embraced bohemianism, one wonders if the term is still viable. When a counter culture goes mainstream, the style can no longer be viewed as alternative.

When discount stores sell peasant skirts, and fashion magazines offer expensive designer made bohemian style garments, the nature of the bohemian life has become a cultural norm, and no longer unique and specific to a particular group.

Though fashion often embraces boho chic, the life itself - the yearning for individual freedom, the rejection of modern materialistic concepts, the dream of utopian ideals, and production of hand crafted goods remains a powerful alternative to mainstream culture.

Boho Roots - Hungarian Romani Early 20th Century

Questions & Answers


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      • Dolores Monet profile image

        Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States

        Michaela - thank you for pointing out the fact that the word "Gypsy" has a derogatory component to it and I apologize for any offense. The unfortunate truth is that in many books on clothing, fashion, and art this is the word used to describe a certain mode of dress. In fact, the painting at the beginning of this article is entitled "Gypsy Woman." While I can not change the name of a painting, I have attempted to put aside the slur and incorporated the word "Romani" when possible.

      • profile image

        Michaela 2 years ago

        Great article, the history of Bohemia and the people associated with it has a long and convoluted history indeed, but I wanted to point out that gypsy was and still is a racial slur to the Romany people and I think that needs to be added in this article to let people know it's not a word you can just throw around and use to label a fashion or style. It's very demeaning to a group of people that today still face a lot of racism and oppression.