“I’m a girl from a good family who was very well brought up.
One day I turned my back on it all and became a bohemian.”
As a young teenager growing up in the late 1970s, I was irresistibly drawn to bohemian (or boho) style clothing. It was everywhere — even in my little hometown in rural upstate New York! I just loved the vivid colors and unique designs that people were wearing in those days.
The movie Hair, which emblematized the era, was one of my favorites; and the clothes worn by the characters in the film made a lasting impression on me. Now that I’m a little older, I think I know why: wearing color is not just pleasing to the eye, it can also lift the spirit.
For over 200 years bohemian style has been the exotic alternative to the culturally accepted fashions of one’s time period. Since the beginning, bohemian fashion has tended to be connected with writers, artists, and other creative individuals; and it incorporates various ethnic styles as well as historical costume.
This style — which is also known as boho chic, hippie style, and creative dress — typically consists of comfortable, colorful, loose-flowing clothing comprising organic, detailed, folk-inspired pieces.
Bohemianism as a counterculture first appeared in France following that period of great social upheaval, the French Revolution (1789–1799). Deprived of the former patronage of the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie, many artists were forced to live in poverty. They opted for a nomadic life, lived cheaply, and wore used, cast-off clothing. Being creative, however, they could not help but make their mode of dress an artistic statement in and of itself.
Nowhere is this way of life better illustrated than in Giacomo Puccini’s iconic 19th-century opera, La Bohème. (One hundred years later, Jonathan Larson’s hit Broadway musical Rent, loosely based on Puccini’s work, is a more modern retelling of the bohemian lifestyle.)
Soon, a new cult of personality appeared, led by the inimitable Lord Byron (1788–1824). Arguably the world’s first hippie, he eschewed the de rigeur stiff necktie of his age, preferring instead a comfortable open collar. He was also known for adopting the mode of dress of the exotic countries which he visited, and there are numerous portraits of the poet attired in Greek, Albanian, and other ethnic modes.
As with the example of Lord Byron, it was in their style of dress that bohemian artists could express their individuality. They depicted themselves as unconventional, heroic geniuses who displayed creativity in the way they looked and lived. In this way, the artists themselves became a work of art!
Because of the way they lived, these artists were often compared to wandering gypsies — that is, the Romani people, an ethnic group with Indian origins who migrated north centuries ago and first settled in an area in Eastern Europe and the Balkans called Bohemia (hence the term bohemian).
In the 20th century, basic bohemian style remained unchanged, but it became associated with young people wanting to separate themselves from the materialism of past generations.
A new, updated style emerged from the counterculture of the 1950s and 60s. Ironically, the so-called “Beatniks” took on a more austere tone, often dressing in black turtlenecks and other muted colors. A generation later, hippie style re-introduced bright hues, mixing Native American features with a whimsical element of childhood.
In more recent times, East Indian clothing style has had a big impact on bohemian dress in the West. This is due in part to the popularity of the Yoga movement. The kurta tunic is a perfect example of this shift.
Some of the elements of modern-day bohemian style include:
- Flowing , loose clothing made of natural fibers
- Paisley, ruffled, and flowered fabrics
- Colorful scarves worn around the neck, on the head, and around the waist
- Peasant-style clothing, including loose pants, tunics, sandals, and boots
- Layering of different garments
- Accessorizing with strands of beads, multiple bangle bracelets, and unmatched handcrafted jewelry
For me, the epitome of bohemian fashion in the world today is 94-year-old icon Iris Apfel, co-founder of Old World Weavers. Though she has worked as a White House decorator for nine different Presidents, she embodies boho dress to her core. What an inspiration!
In short, I would say that boho chic today is really about being yourself and dressing authentically: that is, knowing what makes you feel happy and alive — and wearing it!
For more examples of bohemian style clothing, please visit the Women’s Kurta Tunics page of my store.
~ Mary Kuntz