Culture: Stories of dress and cultural context

Ah… the Bohemian, a romantic image that conjures ideas of art, creativity, free thinking, adventure and excitement. The notion of a kind of life that is lived fully, to the hearts desire, no matter the consequences. I adore the idea of this life, yet my innate practicality and sense of responsibility does not quite allow to me to follow such a path. Perhaps this explains my penchant for clothing with a decidedly Bohemian feel thoroughly mixed with a good dose of practicality.

So, when a dear friend called upon us recently to help her celebrate her birthday in “Bohemian style” I was understandably keen. Frida Kahlo it turns out is a long-term love of hers and she was beautifully adorned on the night as Frida complete with authentic Mexican bodice. It fascinates me how we identify with people, styles, periods or even football teams that strike a chord with us. I hadn’t known of my friends appreciation for Frida before, but once I learnt of it struck me as wholly appropriate to my knowledge of her. Of course you would love Frida, my dear, of course!

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1940. See discussi...

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1940. See discussion of her works below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Always curious to learn more of the history behind the social conventions of dress, I have put together a partial history to share this learning.


From the 1932 Dictionnaire de l’Academie Francaise; a  description of bohemian:

“One who lives a vagabond, un regimented life without assured resources, who does not worry about tomorrow” (150, translation by EAG).

The description of a person or people’s way of living or presenting themselves as being “Bohemian” originates from the early 19th century. It was used in particular reference to French artists, writers’, students and intellectuals living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830’s, post revolutionary France.

This community of people were being likened to the nomadic European gypsies who were  believed to have come from central Europe, specifically Bohemia, a province of modern-day Czechoslovakia.

Coat of arms of the Kingdom of Bohemia

Coat of arms of the Kingdom of Bohemia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bohemian’s, of Bohemia are of Czech, German and Jewish descent and their clothing reflects these cultures.


Interestingly, whilst clothing throughout history has communicated information regarding occupation and social position, these young Bohemians actively embraced their image and used dress to signal their belonging to this community in a way that was new.

As with all cultural & political groups, or artistic movements, different styles emerge and develop. With time we look back and certain people or events stand out.

Three such examples of Bohemian style from this period are:

%22The Lady of Shallot%22. john Waterhouse. 1888. Based on %22the Lady of Shallott%22 by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lady of Shallot. By John Waterhouse.1888. Based on the Lady of Shallott by Alfred Lord Tennyson

  • The French artistic community of the 1830’s, as described above, referred to as Bohemians, whose dress demonstrated influences of the Romantic art movements love of Orientalism and Medieval costume.  In Romantic art, central figures commonly wore clothing featuring rich colours, sumptuous materials, and long flowing hair. It is easy to see why these people were likened to the Gypsies, who also sported these elements.
English: *Description: Mimi's costume for Act ...

Mimi’s costume for Act I of La Bohème for the world premiere performance,
Teatro Regio di Torino, 1 February 1893.

  • Mimi (a seamstress), Rodolfo (a poet), Marcello (a painter) and Musetta (a singer), the central protagonists in Giacomo Puccini’s very famous opera La Bohèmeset in Paris in the 1840’s.

This is the clothing of dire poverty, threadbare, leaking, unkempt and generally not fit for their environment. Whilst not an uncommon occurrence, poor Mimi dies of Consumption (Tuberculosis) at the end of the opera as a result of her inadequate living standards.

During my research I learnt of Henry Murger, whose play “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme” was the basis for Puccini’s opera. I found reference stating that Murger outlines in his play’s introduction his perspective on these people, these “Bohemians.” However, unfortunately I failed to record accurately where I encountered this information and have not managed to find it again or substantiate it by finding a copy of the actual txt. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Despite this I wanted to share it as I found it rather amusing, poignant and quite sad. Murger, having lived a poor existence in the Latin Quarter of Paris at this time, eking out a living and writing about his experiences was perhaps most qualified to make this assessment.

“Bohemia is a stage in artistic life; it is the preface to Academy, the Hotel-Dieu or the Morgue… Today, as of old, (remember he is writing this in 1851) every man who enters an artistic career, without any other means of livelihood than his art itself, will be forced to walk in the paths of Bohemia” (xxxvi).

He also outlines three artistic types:

“Unknown Dreamers – amateur artists who do not seek publicity but expect it to come for them. They are poor and often die from poverty. Murger calls this way of life, a “blind alley,” and says that their avoidance of fame works against them. (xl)”

“Amateur – has a steady income but chooses to live in Bohemia for the fun of it. Once they have had their fill, they will return to the bourgeoise.”

“Stalwart Official Bohemians – must be known as an artist to the wider world; though they are not making a lot of money, they are guided by ambition and are expected to soon be “making it” in the world of art. They know both how to be frugal and how to be extravagant and can fit in squalor or luxury.”

I must say that although I don’t think that the road of an artist is an easy one still today, I do think there are better financial opportunities these days particularly with the advent of technology. Thank goodness!

  • In sharp contrast to Puccini’s Bohemians are the Dandy’s originating in Regency England (1795 – 1830).  A little bit earlier in time and whilst distinctly different from the previous two descriptions, their similarities lie in the active cultivation of an image that is highly artistic and on the fringes of conventional society.
    Brummell, engraved from a miniature portrait

    Beau Brummell, engraved from a miniature portrait

Dandyisim is particularly significant for its development of a cult of the self. A great deal of time and effort was devoted to the development of personal image. This is almost personal image as art.  Beau Brummel, an arbiter of men’s fashion, and a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, until he famously insulted the king and was forced into exile, epitomizes this style. Reputedly, he claimed that he took five hours to dress and even advocated that boots be polished with champagne. Clearly, a good role model for the common folk! He is also credited with introducing and establishing the modern male suit and tie that we know today as the clothing of choice.
  • Last but not least are the artists and clothing reformers of the Arts and Crafts Movement. They advocated an end to restrictive fashions, primarily women’s, and were searching for a permanently beautiful form of clothing that would put an end to the cycle of fashion. The English Pre-Raphaelite‘s are a well-known such group.

One well-known member of this group was William Morris (1834–1896). Morris built a successful textile, wallpaper and embroidery business based on his avant garde designs.

Snakeshead printed cotton designed by William ...

Snakeshead printed cotton designed by William Morris

However he also designed robes for his wife Jane that were devoid of the crinolines and corsets of the mid-Victorian period. In this photo you can see how her dress is soft and drapes around her body. A style of dress that would have allowed far more comfort and movement than that of her contemporaries.

Jane Morris (née Jane Burden; 1839–1914), by u...

Jane Morris (née Jane Burden; 1839–1914),

Another clothing innovator was German painter Vasily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) who designed dresses for his lover artist Gabriele Munter( 1877 – 1962).  Kandinsky’s dresses also echoed the Pre-Raphaelite silhouette, with full sleeves and a loose waist.

The Hour-Glass

The Hour-Glass by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

English: "Pre-Raphaelite Study," 1870

“Pre-Raphaelite Study,” 1870 by Julia Margaret Cameron

The role of the artist or activist and the notion of The Bohemian have remained inextricably linked ever since. But by the beginning of the 20th century, a time of great conflict and social change in society, and on into the 21st century, the notion of Bohemianism has become for some, but the most dedicated of Bohemian’s, a phase of life through which one passes. A time during which one might dress in a picturesquely rebellious manner, live in artists’ studios or inexpensive housing, and go to bohemian parties. A time of self-development, burgeoning independence and identity. A Bohemian style of living also comes in many guises.  So many sub cultures now populate our societies and inhabit the world of bohemia.

So with all this mix of art, idealism and squalor, the notion of Bohemia remains a romantic, transitory, magical yet difficult place. A space in society which fosters dissidents, geniuses, misfits, and eccentrics to gather, encourage and support one another.

A wonderful place.


  • Czech Ethnic Dress – Patricia Williams, Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress, Volume 9 – East Europe, Russia, and the Caucasus, Part 3: East Central Europe and the Baltics, published on the Berg Fashion Library online September 2010.                    DOI:
  • Bohemian Dress, Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress, A-Z of Fashion – Elizabeth Wilson, published on the Berg Fashion Library online.
  • Murger, Henry. The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (Scenes de la Vie de Boheme). New York: Societe de Beaux-Arts, 1915.
  • Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (8th edition), Paris, 1932-1935

2 Comments on “Bohemian

  1. Pingback: Terminology Tuesday #6 Quirky and curious fashion terms: Aesthetic Dress. | the art of costume

  2. Amazing research you dedicated thing! I wish I had read it before… And I am grateful Frida existed to inspire us x