A Bohemian History

I have always been an admirer of the semi-chaotic, colourful and creative Bohemian Style, both in fashion and interiors.

Evelyn NesbitRose and I recently had an interesting discussion on the origins of today’s Bohemian Style. We both wondered why, in contemporary usage, the term “Bohemian” pertains to people who live unconventional, usually artistic or intellectual, lives.

Bohémien was a common (yet inaccurate) term for the Romani or “Gypsy” population of France. They were mistakenly thought to have reached France via Bohemia when in fact they are said to have originated in India, arriving in Europe roundabout the 13th century. Perhaps this explains the Indian flavour in Bohemian design?

Historically persecuted, the travelling Romani people are often associated with poverty, crime and perceived antisocial or inappropriate behaviour. Even today they are the victims of unwarranted discrimination and are made to feel unwelcome.

Which begs the question – if they were so unwanted and disliked, why are we so fascinated with them and why do we emulate their fashion and style? And how on earth did this word come to describe the poor artists of Paris in the nineteenth century?

The term Bohemianism first emerged in the early nineteenth century during a time when financially struggling artists, writers and musicians began to populate the lower-rent, lower class, Romani neighbourhoods of France.

Many artists were frustrated by the confines of the stodgy and small-minded bourgeois middle-class life which focused largely on propriety and conformation.

The care-free vagabond lifestyle and merry poverty of Romani people captured the imagination of these discontented artists. Many writers and artists of the time romanticised the concept of living below the breadline and suffering for ones art.

Rebelling against social and cultural norms, the artist now found freedom in living eccentric, flamboyant and, sometimes, sexual promiscuous lives. New emphasis was placed on creativity and individual expression not only in their work but also in the way they dressed and lived – often unfashionable, threadbare and bright.

People likened the new artistic types to wandering Gypsies and so the Bohemian counter-culture was born – indicative of a lifestyle rather than a nationality.

Over the last century or so the spirit of this style has seen a few revivals and reincarnations. There have been several Bohemian movements, from the Beatniks of the 1950s to the free-love Hippies of the 1960s & 70s.

Fazio's Mistress painted by Pre-Rapaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1863.
Fazio’s Mistress painted by Pre-Rapaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1863.

What about the Bohemian “style”?

While the non-conformist spirit of the movement stayed much the same, many contributed to outward appearance of the Bohemian Style we know today. Throughout the 20th century many adopted Bohemianism in some way or form and each left his or her unique stamp on the Bohemian aesthetic.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement for instance, transferred a measure of their fascination with medieval folklore to the Bohemian Style. Their work was often dreamy, romantic and mystical, filled with yearning. In fact Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, came to be seen as the “grand prince” of English bohemianism.

Another famous Bohemian, William Morris father of the Arts and Craft Movement, had a profound influence on interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, designing tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics and furniture.

Then there were bohemian sirens like Dorelia McNeill, muse and model for the Welsh artist Augustus John, who further popularised the Bohemian lifestyle and fashion.

Dorelia’s step-granddaughter, 1960s bohemian fashion icon, Talitha Getty was famously enamoured with Marrakesh. I wonder if Talitha’s love for all things Moroccan is the reason why Bohemian interiors have such a strong Moroccan flavour today?

Then came the swinging sixties – a true re-embodiment of the French Bohemian movement of old. Just as Bohemians used art and writing, hippies used their distinct music to rebel against authority and define a whole generation.

Hippies borrowed many of their fashion ideas from the Parisian Bohemians and gypsies of the Czech Republic. The hippies of course put their own spin on the Bohemian style often incorporating non-Western elements. Native American, Asian, Indian, African and Latin American motifs were very popular.

Amazing to think all these various people, movements and elements contributed to the eccentric and colourful Bohemian Style we know today.

Next week we will share some tips and tricks on creating the perfect Bohemian interior – so stay tuned…


4 thoughts on “A Bohemian History

  1. Shjoe Marica – well done on this interesting and informative article. naturally since I was a teenager during the Hippie Era, just knowing the context from a historical perspective really fascinates me. In fact, I probably appreciate the Hippie Era far more now in retrospect, than I did at the time – when it was just simply cool to wear crocheted ponchos, mis-matched clothes and smoke pot( if you dared at the time).

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