The Rational Dress Society


18th-century French Style Five-Light Bohemian Crystal Chandelier, Italy

Maybe it was the disordered harmony of Loulou de la Falise’s home that prompted the reawakening, or the utterly original style that graced her every movement, accessory, or choice, but I find myself, once again, captivated, ridiculously so, by a topic that enthralls and enchants for its nomadic origins and non-bourgeois flair — bohemianism.

Perhaps it was in the longing to mimic her immutable style of dress that I so scrupulously copied as a teenager and young career woman. I feel a bit sheepish to admit it (I know, I know, sheepish and bohemian should never share the same sentence) and would  benefit greatly from a bit of Loulou’s bravado or Anna Piaggi’s unapologetic audacity, but I, too, was known for my signature head wraps, long flowing skirts layered by two, sometimes three underskirts, slouched suede boots and masses of beaded jewelry at my throat and wrists. Not to be mistaken for a dilettante, a well-thumbed memoir celebrating some obscure figure in history, usually female, and always rebellious (ie. George Sand) accompanied me everywhere in my over-sized shoulder bag.

Perhaps it takes the nurturing and attentiveness of a blog to reveal the innermost musings of your soul. My own familial heritage has never been grounded in the staid, historical lineage of family trees, distant relatives or properties passed down through generations. It is, no doubt, this fracturing of continuity that inspired more unconventional pursuits like an unabashed fervor for all things bohemian. Maybe you, too, share my love for the unconventional.


Virginia Woolf, 1902

If so, you might like to know this: The modern usage, the term “Bohemian” (sometimes shortened to “boho”) is applied to people who live unconventional, usually artistic, lives. The adherents of the “Bloomsbury Group,” which formed around the Stephen sisters, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf in the early 20th century, are among the best-known examples. The original “Bohemians” were travelers or refugees from central Europe (hence, the French bohémien, for “gypsy”.

Reflecting on the fashion style of “boho-chic” in the early years of the 21st century, the Sunday Times thought it ironic that “fashionable girls wore ruffly floral skirts in the hope of looking bohemian, nomadic, spirited and non-bourgeois”, whereas “gypsy girls themselves … are sexy and delightful precisely because they do not give a hoot for fashion.”

By contrast, in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th, aspects of Bohemian fashion reflected the lifestyle itself.


Vanessa Bell, née Stephen (1879-1961)

In 1848 William Makepeace Thackeray used the word bohemianism in his novel Vanity Fair. In 1862, the Westminster Review described a Bohemian as “simply an artist or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art”. During the 1860s the term was associated in particular with the pre-Raphaelite movement, the group of artists and aesthetes of which Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the most prominent:

As the 1860s progressed, Rossetti would become the grand prince of bohemianism as his deviations from normal standards became more audacious. Not surprisingly, as he became the epitome of the unconventional, his egocentric demands required that his close friends remodel their own lives to suit his. Bohemianism or Male? You decide. In time, his bohemianism was like a web which entrapped others, none more so than William and Jane Morris.


Jane Morris painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Proserpine (1874)

Jane Morris, who was to become Rossetti’s muse, (how many women in history were accorded their very own muse I ask you) epitomized, probably more than any of the women associated with the pre-Raphaelites, an unrestricted, flowing style of dress that, while unconventional at the time, would be highly influential at certain periods during the 20th century .

She and others, including the much less outlandish Georgiana Burne-Jones (wife of Edward Burne-Jones), eschewed the corsets and crinolines of the mid to late Victorian era , a feature that impressed the American writer Henry James when he wrote to his sister in 1869 of the bohemian atmosphere of the Morrises’ house in the Bloomsbury district of London and, in particular, the “dark silent medieval” presence of its chatelaine:

It’s hard to say whether she’s a grand synthesis of all the pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made … whether she’s an original or a copy. In either case she’s a wonder. Imagine a tall lean woman in a long dress of some dead purple stuff, guiltless of hoops (or of anything else I should say) with a mass of crisp black hair heaped into great wavy projections on each of her temples … a long neck, without any collar, and in lieu thereof some dozen strings of outlandish beads .

The pre-Raphaelite look was still considered “advanced” in the late years of the 19th century when movements, like the Rational Dress Society (1881), (ghastly to think that even back then women were subjected to the rules of dress reform) who considered the Morrises and Georgiana Burne-Jones members, was beginning to demonstrate real influence on the fashions of the day.




~ by eaesthete on 09/25/09.

5 Responses to “The Rational Dress Society”

  1. Great post. I love all things bohemian too and it’s interesting to
    read of the origins of the movement. And what a revealing note
    from Henry James to his sister on the “wonder” of Jane Morris.
    Fascinating stuff!

  2. Enjoyed this!

  3. Thank you for the fascinating education!

  4. I like Thackeray’s description of a bohemian, “simply an artist or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art.” It’s an expression I’ve felt close to – or aspired to! – since 20 and it takes me aback when I hear it used disparagingly. Hmph. It all depends on the circle I’m revolving in! We do reveal a lot of ourselves in blogs and here you have done it more directly. Thank you for your wonderfully composed posts.

    • And thank you for identifying yourself as a like-minded spirit. Its
      interesting to go into stores these days and see that hair wraps
      exactly like I used to wear coming back into vogue. I wore those
      those wraps religiously. Come to think of it, bohemianism was
      my religion and I embraced it with a fervor and artistry that I
      still take great pride in.

      Thackeray’s description is wondrous and I fully intend to use it in EA”s
      quotes one day. I do so love it when an exchange like this happens
      over a shared passion. Thank you for writing.

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