The History of the Bohemian Fashion World, Part One

The 50th anniversary of the Village Voice Obie awards took place the other night, a historic event that got us thinking about the last 50 years of fashion, and in particular the ways in which downtown, avant-garde types—the very kind of people invariably honored with Obies—have expressed themselves through clothes for the last half century.

This is a subject of great interest to us, an enthusiasm stretching back decades, since the days when we were desperate to dress cool while not looking like a capitalist-lackey sell-out. (In fact, it wasn't until we saw Jean-Luc Godard's Tout Va Bien, which featured Marxist girls in 1940s-style silk dresses and crimson lipstick, that we were emboldened to reconcile our politics with our sartorial impulses. This is a film that Jane Fonda says she can't remember making, which is odd, since it changed our life.)

Anyway, there we were at the cocktail party preceding the Obies, surrounded by old Voice covers showing young women with long straight hair in black ensembles and flat shoes, with a haunting jazz soundtrack playing in the background, when we began to put together a mental list: What are the staples of the ur-bohemian wardrobe? What themes have lasted for at least 50, and in some cases closer to 100, years? What could Louise Bryant, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lee Krasner, or any other incredible dames have worn that we might wear too?

The eternal peasant look from Surma on Seventh Street.
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
The eternal peasant look from Surma on Seventh Street.

Though there's a slight complication in the fact that many bohemian staples—things like dungarees and striped French sailor shirts—have crossed over into the mainstream, and the general slovenliness that currently grips the America masses makes every truck driver and stock broker look like a drunk poet, certain distinct theme nevertheless emerge. Among them:


The dissolute dancer: This look depends on scoop-necked leotards, leggings, wrap-around sweaters, and ballet slippers. Talk about venerable—it's been around at least since the mid 19th century, when the ballet rats (many of whom were also junior prostitutes) were painted by Degas.

The left-bank intellectual: This unisex look depends heavily on jeans—maybe with rolled cuffs—the aforementioned striped shirt, a navy surplus pea jacket, and to dispel any doubt that you may have just thrown these ingredients together and are not in fact reading Deleuze, a beret.

The Upper West Side political activist: Actually, wearers of these ensembles can live anywhere, though in our mind she's a lady of a certain age who always inhabits a huge apartment and has spent the last century holding meetings to free Sacco and Vanzetti, save the Rosenbergs, end nuclear proliferation, vote the Bushes out of office, etc. For these get-togethers, she wears flowing comfy layers of batik-dyed chiffon and gigantic jewelry—amber beads, ear-stretching copper plates, et al.

Which brings us to: The ethnic adventuress: This look has surprisingly early roots, dating back at least to Frieda Kahlo. Forty years ago, you could have bought Mexican wedding dresses at the famous Fred Leighton on MacDougal Street, and you can still buy an authentic Rumanian peasant blouse at Surma on East 7th Street, though some of them are made in China. Then again, you can add something that was actually made in China from Pearl River. A '50s dirndl skirt, printed with scenes of the Eiffel Tower or Dutch windmills or other such far-flung locales is another alternative, and this can be found in a thrift shop—or maybe at the Prada outlet in Woodbury Common, since they made replicas of these skirts a centerpiece of their collection last spring. As it turns out, Miuccia Prada, the doyenne of the company and a former communist herself, knows a thing or two about offbeat dressing. Last year, when she won the CFDA award, she showed up at the black-tie party in a plain little sweater and pleated skirt with a diamond tiara on her head. Now that's bohemian.

 
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