Boho - Fashion History and Bohemian Style

Rosetti's Bocca Baciata - Bohemian Style

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


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.

Moments from La Boheme

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.

Sophie Gray - Painting by John Everett Millias 1857

Bohemian style 1857
Bohemian style 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.

Beliving 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 - A Painting by Renior


Hippie Style or Boho chic


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 or Bohemian Style

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

Jane Morris


Dorelia McNeill


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. To the right, in a 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.

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

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Comments 13 comments

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 5 years ago from TEXAS

Dolores!! Wonderful hub!! I love both history and fashion. My college minor as Art: Fashion Desiging, and it's been both an occupation and a preoccupation almost as long as I remember. Mother and one of my sisters were also interested. I'm delighted that you're into the subject of the history of fashion, and this hub is a superior example! I love your style! You do this great justice!

I also devour history and the opera "La Boheme" which was mentioned is one of my favorites. I love Puccini!

I wanted to mention that I have a marvelous book on "History of Fashion". I've just been looking it up on Google to mention here, only to discover that it's now considered a rare book. I think the original edition I have may be gaining in value. There may be other editions, but even they don't seem to be currently in print. What a shame.

History of Fashion - by J. Anderson Black & Madge Garland ISBN 0-688-02893-4 WILLIAM MORROW & COMPANY, INC. New York 1975 400 pages. It is beautifully illustrated.

I found a list of "all sources" of the book @:

I can't tell if they are the same as mine. None have illustrations of the book or its dust cover. But mine is a beautiful "coffee table" edition which I actually got about the time it was published.

I love that bohemian look, though my wardrobe is rather different. hehe - I just bought some lovely all-cotton tie-dyed socks! haha. It's too hot to wear them right now, but they will be lovely in the wintertime!

Lovely Planet profile image

Lovely Planet 5 years ago from Loveliest part of our planet

I heard about Bohemian style sometimes back but I didn't know anything about its origination and many other facts about it that you have given in this hub.

Very informative and interesting hub. Appreciate your efforts to publish it.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Nellieanna - I own one book on fashion history but mostly haunt the library for info, as well as reading books on history, sort of the daily life in (name a time) books. Your book sounds great. I look for used fashion books in thrift stores, but no luck so far. Thanks!

Lovely planet - I love Bohemian style and wanted to find out just how it all got started so...Anyway, thank you!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Very nicely done. Your observation that the lifestyle can be controlled by commercialising and packaging it is very true. It is also very deliberate and has knocked the guts out of many grassroots movements just as they were gathering a head of steam.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Paraglider - corporations can incorporate the facade of a counter culture in order to squash the authenticity of a movement, sort of like the Borg. Thanks!

capalynn profile image

capalynn 5 years ago from Roseville, CA

Thanks for such a comprehensive hub about boho fashion and culture. I love the colorful styles and designs. It seems to me that bohemian fashion is becoming more and more mainstream and desirable, which then makes it less counterculture. What are your thoughts about that?

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

capalynn - I pointed that out at the end of the article. However, hand crafted goods are still out of the norm. Retail clothing may offer a Bohemian look, and the style may have become mainstream, ending the counter culture ideal, but it's still pretty! Thank you!

Vanderleelie profile image

Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

A very interesting hub. I think the shift from a lifestyle and counter-culture statement to a fashion trend is rather regrettable. It seems that true Bohemian has been dumbed-down and made into a commodity - like a lot of other legitimate movements.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Vanderleelie - in some ways yes. The unique quality is lost. But the idea that fashion dictators rule what we all wear, from the exact length of hemline to how we wear a hat has taken a back seat to what women really want. I think the influence of Bohemian types have opened the clothing market to so many more styles. Thank you!

handyhowto profile image

handyhowto 4 years ago from California

Great hub. It's nice to find out the origins of phrases we might otherwise take for granted.

There was also a movement around bohemian music in the 19th century .. the composer Dvorak composed his "Bohemian Rhapsodies" after traveling with folk musicians in Bohemia .. and of course Queen did their own take a century later. Thanks for the hub.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

handy - thank you! I totally forgot about the Dvorak and how could I forget Queen! Just trying to stick to fashion. With most topics, one could go on and on!

Michaela 17 months 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.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 17 months ago from East Coast, United States Author

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.

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