Thursday, 13 March 2014

On Semantics, Fashion, Home Decor and Books (Because I Couldn't Think of Any Other Title)

 I currently have a fascination with the term bohemian. The original use of the word was to refer to people who came from the part of Europe referred to as Bohemia, which was a former kingdom of what is now Czechoslovakia.  There were apparently a variety of peoples in Bohemia including Germans, Slavs, Jews and Roma.  The Roma people came to be labelled with the term gypsy due to the mistaken belief that they were originally Egyptians.   In our current times the term gypsy is understood to be a racial slur and people of Romani descent are asking for the term to be dropped.  The word persists in pop culture and I see it mentioned when referring to a particular style of dressing and home decor known as boho, boho chic, or bohemian style.

The term bohemian then came to be applied to people who were neither Romani nor from Bohemia when, in the late nineteenth century, artists, writers, musicians and performers began to cluster together in the parts of Paris traditionally associated with the Romani people.  These were, of course, the poorer parts of town, the cheaper places to live, and the artists tended to be poor.  The Romani people were thought of as Bohemian, having come from Bohemia, and thus the artists who began to live among them were also called Bohemians.  The idea of calling anyone who lived an unconventional, artist's life,  a Bohemian grew from there.

My Oxford English Dictionary lists the first definition of Bohemian as 1. (Native) of Bohemia, a former kingdom now part of Czechoslovakia, Czech.  2. Socially unconventional (person); of free & easy habits, manners & sometimes morals (esp. of artists etc.).  Clearly it could potentially be considered an insult or a slur to say someone has free and easy manners and morals, although such a description may not offend everyone.  If one is really and truly Bohemian in this sense, it would not be offensive at all. 

In our culture it is considered a desirable thing to be your unique self.  Everyone is a special individual, we are told.  While our immediate cultural environment will vary on a liberal-conservative scale, it is no longer a terribly shocking thing to be a bit different.  Or even a lot different.  The town eccentric is out of a job because it's all been seen and done before.  So how far out there does one have to get in order to be 'unconventional'?  I would argue that it has to be pretty far out and thus there are not many bohemians left.  The other possibility is that there are so many bohemians that bohemianism itself is no longer possible and thus the term is mostly useless.  It has changed into a sort of watered down pop culture phenomenon.  Now we have boho chic.

Currently, boho chic in fashion means clothing that is a bit reminiscent of the original hippie era, with lots of California influence in the form of maxi dresses, cowboy boots, cut off denim shorts and long hair worn in what is known as beachy waves.   People in New York or Tokyo don't do boho chic as far as I know.  If it veers away from the hippie look it embraces a sort of, theatrical gypsy look and despite the word gypsy now being considered offensive, the word still gets tossed around in this context.  The internet abounds with people claiming to be a gypsy at heart and swooning over vintage dresses and jangly bangles.   I quite like many parts of the boho look, but ironically it is not really bohemian if adopted wholeheartedly as a style as it is too mainstream and too prescribed.  The Paris bohemians did not pop into the local Bohemian Babe Boutique to buy their clothes.

Bohemian home decor means your home is meant to look like you travel a lot.  You will have "ethnic" things which you either bought on your many travels to exotic places or you bought at Pier 1 Imports hoping to look like you travel to exotic places.  You may favour Moroccan, Indian, Mexican or American Southwest and if you are under 40 you mix it in with mid-century modern furniture.  You might possibly go for the California/Scandinavian influenced boho-modern look in which you have pale wood, white walls, mid-century modern furniture and a sparse arrangement of "ethnic" decor or pink things.  Because of the gypsy association, some people see a bohemian lifestyle as one with few possessions and attachments, perhaps no permanent residence.  This would mean quite sparse living but you won't see that in any home decor features.  It's not the same as modern minimalism which has much invested in architecture and a spare but expensive look, if not knick- knacks and ethnic print throw pillows.  You can google sites that will prescribe for you how to decorate in bohemian style, just as you can find an explanation on how to dress that way.

Obviously this misuse of a term is getting on  my word-nerd nerves.  I will be the first to admit that my own tastes go in a bohemian direction, my own lifestyle is somewhat unconventional at least compared with my peer group, and I probably have more unconventional views than many of my peers realise due to my currently living a quiet life and keeping much to myself.  I would love to be a bohemian in a more original sense of the word, but I don't consider myself one because in the end I still think I am too ordinary.  I don't mean that negatively.  It's rare to be unusual and unconventional simply because it's not easy to be these days. So much variety in behaviour and lifestyle is accepted and I'm sure that's a good thing. What seems bohemian in one environment may seem ordinary in another.   The original artistic concept of bohemianism implied a certain degree of poverty too.  Most people don't want that for too long a period in their lives.  Even Picasso, an original bohemian artist, eventually became wealthy. 

 For an interesting look at the lives and art of the people associated with the bohemian movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I recommend these two books. 
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And for a bit of fun reading try this one.  It's a tongue in cheek look at the modern day bohemian/artist culture written by a woman who lives in it.

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I am curious to try this one and would be interested if anyone has read it.

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Now, I'm off to decide which maxi skirt I will wear tomorrow when I go shopping for a Suzani.  Just kidding, but I would actually love a suzani.

6 comments:

  1. No, I don't consider myself remotely bohemian either, in lifestyle or personal style! Like you, I am interested in words and the history behind the terminology we use, though concepts often become so watered down that they are virtually meaningless. I don't really ever use "boho" as a description of style, it seems a bit of a cliche now. I would be interested in the art/social history books rather than the ones about style.
    You always have something ingesting to say, Shawna, I do like that! xxx

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  2. The first two books I showed are definitely about the people and their lives, though the one called Bohemian Style also focuses on the home of Vanessa Bell et al, Charelston, and how they decorated and painted everything there. If someone wanted to make a painting and didn't have a canvas, the wall was just perfect. My great grandfather was a landscape artist and apparently sometimes friends with Augustus John who was on the cusp of the English Bohemian/Vanessa Bell gang. Vanessa Bell was the sister of Virgina Wolf so they were all very artsy and unconventional. I learned that some aunts of mine, daughters of the artist, ended up living with and having childen with the same man. The family was shocked. I guess the sisters were running with the bohemians. LOL I suppose such a thing might even be mildly shocking even today.

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  3. Yes, it might well be suitable for a Jerry Springer show!
    Btw, my iPad autocorrected interesting to ingesting. Sorry about that! xxx

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    1. I saw that and got a good chuckle. I did assume it was autocorrect, though I suppose you could have just been hungry and had your mind on food. ;-)

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  4. i´m a bohemian at heart. and not only because of my sudetian (now czech republic) grandma ;-)
    even if i try - i cant be "normal". i know you know what i mean. and i think you are a bohemian too. about that boho-chic commerce i can only laugh, like the punk attire you can order at the internet. pah.

    can you do us a favor? switch of that nasty figures thing in the comment section please please!

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    1. I will try to do that favour-I didn't set it up that way on purpose so it must be the default.
      I am a bit bohemian compared with my peer group, but in a different environment I would probably look very conservative. I also do not have complete freedom to make certain choices without risking living on the street and I am definitely not THAT bohemian! The mis-use of ther term bohemian, gypsy and this concept of boho probably annoy me because I do have bohemian leanings. My ancestors are nearly all British with an Icelandic great grandmother tossed into the mix, perhaps I should take up viking themed apparel and home decor.

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