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Boho Clothing: Fashion History and Bohemian Style

"Bocca Baciata" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti—1859. A perfect example of a bohemian-styled woman.

"Bocca Baciata" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti—1859. A perfect example of a bohemian-styled woman.

200 Years of Boho Fashion

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 clothing styles from around the world, as well as historical costumes.

This 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.

Elements of Bohemian style include

  • Loose clothing, hair, and outer garments
  • Theatrical elements
  • Based on historic styles
  • Layered jewelry and scarves

Origin of Bohemian Style

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 lifestyle, lived cheaply, and wore worn-out, unfashionable or used clothing.

Formerly, an artist was seen as a skilled and talented craftsperson. 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 craftsperson, 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.

"Portrait of a Girl" Painting by John Everett Millais—1857. Sophie Gray is the subject.

"Portrait of a Girl" Painting by John Everett Millais—1857. Sophie Gray is the subject.

Bohemian Lifestyle of the 19th Century

By the 1830s, the French bohemian art crowd and the Romantics embraced medieval clothing styles with their colorful fabrics, long flowing hair, and wide-brimmed hats.

The novelist Henri Murger wrote tales about the people he called bohemians, centering on a group of artists and intellectuals in threadbare coats, old shoes, and a general look of dishevelment.

The style evolved into a cult of the individual, a person whose very appearance became a work of art with carefully planned outfits and accessories.

"In Summer" By Pierre-Auguste Renoir—1868. This is a portrait of Lise Tréhot.

"In Summer" By Pierre-Auguste Renoir—1868. This is a portrait of Lise Tréhot.

The Aesthetic Movement

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

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.

20th-Century Bohemian Style

Basically unchanged for many years, the bohemian style came to be associated with young people hoping to distance themselves from the materialistic culture of past generations. It even gave birth to more modern counterculture styles. Beatniks, with their black turtle necks and striped shirts, took on a more austere tone of dress. Hippies introduced a note of childhood to the mix by incorporating old western styles like prairie skirts and fringed leather jackets.

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

When discount stores sell peasant skirts, and fashion magazines offer expensive designer-made boho garments, the nature of the lifestyle has become a cultural norm and is no longer unique or 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 the production of handcrafted goods—remains a powerful alternative to mainstream culture.

Hippie at the Rainbow Gathering.

Hippie at the Rainbow Gathering.

Elements of Bohemian Style

Bohemian style, now more commonly referred to as boho chic, has come down through history, reappearing as beatnik style and in the hippie culture of the 1960s. This style typically consists of the following fashion elements.

  • Loose, flowing clothing made of natural fabrics
  • Less restrictive garments worn without corsets, bras, or other restrictive elements
  • Loose, flowing, natural 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
  • Robes, kimonos, and traditional fabric patterns and designs from Persia, India, Turkey, and China
  • Mixed historical elements of medieval clothing, theatrical costume, and more modern styles
  • Layers
  • Garments matched in a non-traditional manner, such as mixing prints, or unusual color combinations
  • Multiple strands of beads, several bangle bracelets, and the wearing of unusual, handcrafted, or unmatched jewelry
  • Large dangle or large hoop earrings
  • Broad-brimmed hats
  • Patched clothing
  • Paisley, flowered fabrics, ruffles, lace-edged sleeves
  • A look of contrived dishevelment
"The Blue Silk Dress" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti—1868. Portrait of Jane Morris.

"The Blue Silk Dress" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti—1868. Portrait of Jane Morris.

Bohemian Icons

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

The Rainbow Gathering: An annual meeting of like-minded individuals who reject capitalism and materialism and embrace utopian ideals, the creative life, environmentalism, and diversity.

The Hippie Movement of the Late 1960s: Centered on the creativity of life and dress, the hippie style included elements of historic costume and a rejection of mainstream life.

Greenwich Village, New York or The Village: Once a gathering place for impoverished artists and writers, and 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 and their struggles with poverty and disease.

Paul Poiret: The early 20th-century fashion designer used elements of peasant costumes from around the world in his designs. His introduction of historical dress into high fashion eventually bled into mainstream fashion.

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

Dorelia McNeill photographed in 1909.

Dorelia McNeill photographed in 1909.