Bohemian Dress: A Revolutionary History

In reference to fashion, many people think the word “Bohemian” refers to the style’s origins in the central European area once known as Bohemia, but this is a common misconception. In fact, bohemian dress earned its name because the early 19th century artists, intellectuals, writers, and free-spirits with which the fashion was affiliated were assumed to be gypsies, who were mistakenly thought to come from Bohemia in central Europe. Today, the term is associated with anyone or anything that is socially unconventional or offbeat, especially in an artistic way. The bohemian style reflects this with its flowing lines, gauzy fabrics, loose silhouettes, and unconventional artistic prints, but it emerged as a way of taking even the simplest of fashion to new artistic heights.

The Emergence of Bohemian Dress

As Elizabeth Wilson notes, bohemian dress emerged in post-Revolutionary France at a time when the status of fashion, much like the status of the artist herself, was evolving. Bohemian dress signaled a new way of thinking wherein one’s clothing reflected the inner self rather than simply signifying social class or profession. Art and fashion were interlinked for bohemians, who used fashion to extend art into everyday life. By using themselves as canvases upon which clothing became a work of art in its own right, bohemians resisted being seen merely as impoverished artists, no matter how humble the garments themselves might be. Today, the label “bohemian” has become a catch-all term for clothing that is off-beat and reflects artistic leanings. Once considered unconventional, the styles that early bohemian dress inspired are now staples of mainstream fashion in the 21st century.

Romantic Influences

Wilson notes that the emergence of bohemian styles coincided with the 19th-century Romantic movement’s new vision of the artist-as-genius. Rather than just being craftspeople, artists were now seen as possessing special creative qualities that made them distinct from everyone else. To reflect this in their clothing, the Romantics preferred “rich materials and colors, wide-brimmed hats, and long flowing curls,” which became the beginning of the bohemian style.

Additionally, both the stories of Henri Murger and the emergence of male dandyism, in turn, played a role in creating this iconic style of dress. Where Murger’s stories described impoverished artists in disheveled threadbare clothing, Dandyism highlighted the importance of self-expression through dress, especially in ways that later influenced gender-bending styles of bohemian attire. Murger’s stories, the Bohemian lifestyle, and Bohemian dress later influenced Giacomo Puccini’s widely popular 1896 opera La Bohème, which in turn influenced many 20th-century bohemians.

Evolution of Term

In the late 19th century, dress reformers like the Pre-Raphaelites adopted bohemian styles while pushing to make fashion more wearable and comfortable, especially for women. Vasily Kandinsky’s famous Arts and Crafts movement also adopted the style because of their interest in roomier waistlines, greater ease of movement, and less restrictive sleeves for working artists. Aesthetically, bohemians pushed for innovative styles inspired by the artistic counter-cultures that favored them, making them popular with anyone who wanted to go against the grain of mainstream fashion. Over time, bohemianism was increasingly seen as the fashion of rebellion, counter-culture, and non-conformity. By the early twentieth century, bohemianism was also associated with gender-bending fashion and early LGBTQ culture. The term was especially common among American lesbians in the 1930s, who self-identified as bohemians to signify preferences.

Modern Bohemian Trends

The development of mass media after 1945 brought the term into popular use, and bohemian dress, in turn, began splintering into different sub-styles. Beatnik culture, for instance, favored “white lips, black kohl-ringed eyes, peasant skirts, black stockings, and ‘arty’ jewelry.” Later, hippies adopted the bohemian style, adding flared silhouettes, various types of fringe, ethnic-inspired clothing, and beadwork to their repertoire.

Today, the style is most evident in counter-culture fashion like the goth style and in what is sometimes called boho-chic to refer to peasant skirts and tops, flowing hair, and natural jewelry. Boho-chic has been especially popular throughout the early 2000s with celebrities like Nicole Richie, Jennifer Aniston, Blake Lively, and Selena Gomez popularizing bohemian-inspired looks. Timeless, creative, and carefree, the bohemian style has stood the test of time and will likely continue to be around for generations to come.