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Tuesday
Jul052016

Boho v. Bohemian

Boho style has never appealed to me, and I lay the blame squarely on Sienna Miller. In the Nineties and early Noughties, she became so ubiquitous and synonymous with this style that I had to suppress a shudder at the sight of her whenever I flipped the page in a magazine. She was everywhere, extolled and lavished with praise, as was the gypsy style she popularised.

In my mind, ‘boho’ seems sometimes to be interchangeable with the word ‘hideous’. It is indiscriminately used to describe anything with a vaguely hippy appearance, and often involves yards and yards of enveloping Seventies polyester knit, paisley print, miles of fringing, a granny’s-worth of crochet, tiered gypsy skirts, pirate boots (preferably in tan leather or suede), floral leather thong headbands (with or without a crystal pendant), multitudes of long necklaces and an excessive quantity of rings worn on practically every finger at once (see below).

The closest I came to anything boho during my style evolution was a printed Indian full skirt I wore when I was at art school. My mum told me I looked like a gypsy. (Gypsies were a common sight when she was growing up in Yugoslavia in the Forties and Fifties.) I actually found it quite difficult to dress up for this photoshoot, and it took me two attempts to find something emulating boho style.

Today the term ‘boho’ is popularly taken to be an abbreviation simply for ‘bohemian’, but in fact its style origin is more particular, and comes from the French term ‘bobo’. It is ‘short for bourgeois bohème. Parisians who are both upscale and artistic. Similar to the original meaning of the American ‘hipster’, but generally laced with a uniquely French je ne sais quois.’ [Urban Dictionary]

But this is still a very superficial description of the boho chick – I wanted to know who were the original Bohemians, and what distinguished them from their style counterpart of today.

The Origin of the True Bohemians

The original Bohemians sprung up in the late nineteenth century. As Wikipedia describes it: ‘Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits.’ Or as Virginia Nicholson, author of Among the Bohemians – Experiments in living 1900–1939 [Viking, 2002], puts it:

‘Subversive, eccentric and flamboyant, the artistic community in England in the first half of the twentieth century was engaged on the bold experiment of refashioning not just their art, but their daily lives. They were the pioneers of a domestic revolution.’

Artists, poets, and writers such as Rupert Graves, Augustus John, Dora Carrington, Virgina Wolf, the Bell family of the Bloomsbury Group and many, many more paved the way for how we live today.

Vanessa BellThey in turn were inspired by the emigrating Romanies. The origin of the word ‘bohemian’ is interesting. Today the French Bohémien is translated as ‘Gypsy’, but the original Boii were refugees from the area known until recently as Czechoslovakia. From the early days of the Roman Empire until the Middle Ages, a diaspora of these people fled into Western Europe. They joined groups of disreputable wandering minstrels, unfrocked priests and monks, and from then the word ‘Bohemian’ became associated with such nomadic groups of similar style. When the first genuine Romanies appeared in France with their colourful and vagabond lifestyle, they were immediately associated with the previous refugees. By the sixteenth century, all gypsies were indiscriminately named bohemians.

The Kalderasà invade Britain, 1911 (from Among the Bohemians, by Virginia Nicholson)Augustus John, who modeled his life on the vagabond gypsy and was possibly the original bohemian, was an artist active in the early twentieth century. At the turn of the century after discovering the world of the gypsies in the encampments outside Liverpool, he wrote, ‘Henceforth I was to live for Freedom and the Open Road! No more urbanity for me, no more punctilio…’ Clothing was already deliberately neglected in defiance of his respectable upbringing; he then adopted an exhibitionist style, wore gold earrings, wild hair and beard, which, in his own words, ‘often failed to recommend me to strangers’.

The bohemians of this era celebrated camaraderie, they partied hard, and were irresistibly spontaneous.

His mistress and later second wife, Dorothy McNeill appeared in his paintings metamorphosed as ‘the gypsy goddess Dorelia, her graceful figure swathed by Augustus in yellow folds or sculpted in blue draperies. In his paintings her head is scarved or turbaned, and smocked children caper at her feet, which appear bare from beneath the folds of her long dress. A bright medieval-looking tunic follows the contours of her form. She raises her arms to the sky.’ [Nicholson] Here is the boho babe personified!

Dora Carrington (left) with fellow bohemiansThe bohemians of this era celebrated camaraderie, they partied hard, and were irresistibly spontaneous. Bohemian women bobbed their hair, shockingly wore trousers, and discovered the freedom of sandals after the confinement of uncomfortable shoes. They slept under the stars and climbed trees barefoot. Wearing sandals was actually quite scandalous, indicating libertarian ideals, a preference for beauty, health and comfort over respectability. Though they were expensive, the wearing of sandals indicated anti-affluence— Dorothy John, when seen wearing sandals, was presumed destitute.

Wearing sandals was actually quite scandalous, indicating libertarian ideals, a preference for beauty, health and comfort over respectability.

Hallmark Style of the Modern Boho Babe

According to popular modern notions, bohemian are airy-fairy hippy chicks dressed mostly in romantic, earthy garments, who are fond of wafting around in fields with a breeze ruffling their Rapunzelesque locks with their eyes half-closed pensively. In short, they are inspired by the popular notion of the nineteenth century gypsy, oblivious of their English artistic antecedents.

But what do boho chicks actually wear? Long, flowing layers in printed fabrics, whether they are bursting into flower or a riot of tribal patterns seem to be the most popular iteration. Embroidered, fringed, or beaded fabric is also acceptable, and anything that looks ethnic or exotic. These garments are worn with long beads and feathers, and sequinned or studded belts. Tan leather is preferred as it looks more earthy. Hair is worn long and usually parted in the middle, accessorised with plaited leather thong headbands (my version is a rather tongue-in-cheek exaggerated take on this!). The natural habitat of the boho babe is the music festival, such as Coachella or Glastonbury.

Talitha Getty's style inspires designers still today (click through to read more)Here is Loulou de la Falaise wearing a turban, also adopted by the original bohemians in emulation of gypsiesPoppy Delevingne wearing an Erdem dress and Olympia Le-Tann clutchHere is Sienna Miller, the ubiquitous boho babe herself! (Link to original image broken)Talitha Getty would be the boho chick’s patron saint, and she really did live a bohemian lifestyle in Marrakech. Another Seventies icon with a true bohemian lifestyle is Loulou de la Falaise. Besides Sienna Miller, other celebrity boho babes of this era are Poppy Delevigne, the Olsen twins and Nicole Ritchie.

The average boho chick is clearly not a genuine bohemian in the sociological sense; she is simply acting out a stereotype, temporarily adopting a fad or fashion style for the summer (or just the weekend).

I wonder who are the true bohemians today, and what are they wearing? I suspect they are still much like Augustus John and his band, somewhere on the fringes of society, living life fully and marching to the beat of their own drum.

Photos: March 2014

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