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Gypsy Chic

From Bohemianism to Boho - 
The Advent of Gypsy style in popular culture

 
     Chic - meaning "stylish" or "smart", is an element of fashion….
                                                                In Romani “mishto”

  
    The Roma people, also known as Gypsies, have been inspiring Western art and culture since their peaceful arrival in Europe over 1000 years ago.  All the other Eastern hordes raging behind the sword like the Mongols, Huns, Bulgars, Avars and Cumans, to name just a few, have all since faded away into assimilation, while the Gypsies persevered as Europe largest minority group with an estimated ten to twelve million. Hammer and fiddle was their weapon and commerce their tool of conquest; proving once again that the pen, or tongue in the case of the illiterate Gypsy, is mightier than the sword.

  
    Their arrival in Paris in the 15th century attracted huge crowds.  “You never saw greater crowds going to the Lendit benediction than went flocking to La Chappelle to see them while they were there… their children were very, very clever, both the girls and the boys. Most of them - almost all of them - had their ears pierced and wore a silver ring in each ear, or two rings in each.” (1)

 
    Their dangling earrings caught people’s attention and artists’ vivid imagination. Caravaggio’s famed painting “The Fortune Teller” spread their mystical image far and near inspiring other artist into duplicating the passionate Gypsy model onto their canvases and into their stories.

 
    Gypsies have been inspiring the artists since the Middle-Ages – throughout the Renaissance – into the Modern Age and through social upheavals created by the French Revolution when status-quos started getting turned upside down. The age old patronage institution was one of the first to go. Artists that had been living coddled lives supported by the wives of wealthy noblemen found themselves suddenly out in the cold and having to fend for themselves; the starving artist was born.

 
    Struggling artists, falling deeper and deeper in debt, found themselves slipping through the levels of society till crash landing in the low rent district, aka the Gypsy neighborhood, and from this up-close and personal vantage point began experiencing the highly emotional Gypsy life where life is art. Music is a part of most everything they did whether it’s the rhythmic hammer ping over the anvil or singing – always singing. The artists took a liking to the practicality and comfort of their neighbors’ loose and baggy clothing. This new generation of down-on-their-luck artists preferred calling themselves “water-drinkers” because they had no money for wine, while Parisians chose the derogatory label “bohemian” by their “gypsyesque” behavior.  “Bohemian” was the word also used to identify Gypsies

 

After Bad Luck Comes Good Fortune   (Gypsy proverb)

   

    The 1851 publication of Henry Murger’s novel The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter brought them a new kind of attention and a name now that everyone was calling them; “bohemians”.  The bestselling novel, a series of tales about an artist living in a Parisian attic and his close circle of friend, was quickly adapted into a successful play and later converted into an opera known as “La Boheme” by Giacomo Puccini, and just like that, the formerly ridiculed “bohemian” counter-culture movement was climbing out from its contemptuous hole - into bookshop recognition - to Broadway popularity and ultimately Hollywood fame.


"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”
Brigitte Bardot


    Meanwhile, the story everyone was talking about in Russia was the controversial poem The Gypsies written by the exiled Alexander Pushkin. And rumors were spreading that the story was autobiographical.  It was about a Russian on the run from the law taken in by a nomadic band of Gypsy bear trainers. He falls in love with one of the girls from the camp, the beautiful young Zamfira, and they marry. One night, as all the camp sleeps, he catches her in the arms of her lover. He falls into a jealous rage and brutally murders her with his knife.

    The story would spread across Europe and into the hands of composer Georges Bizet who would re-tell the story using a Spanish setting, change the husband to a soldier, the lover into a bullfighter and rename the seductive Gypsy girl Carmen. He converted the prose into music and revised it as an opera named after the heroine. Its success touring the world would carry on for the next 150 years while simultaneously inspiring dozens of new productions.

 

Life Imitating Art  

     The publicity the Gypsies were receiving through the arts was having an effect. People started thinking about stepping into the painting or transforming themselves into the story.  A new fad stared emerging across social lines inviting peasants, nobleman and artists of crossing over into the forbidden zone and partying with the Gypsies.

    Tzigania, the Gypsy neighborhood, was another world, not only was the setting: sounds, sights and smells, totally new and different yet also the rules weren’t the same; there were no rules. European prohibitive puritanical 19th century morals did not apply in Tzigania and therefore outsiders visiting the Gypsy neighborhood could freely let their hair down, all of it, all the way down, and because, as they say, “what happens in tzigania - stays in tzigania”. `Franz Liszt, Pushkin and Tolstoy were just a few known to regularly frequent the Gypsy camp, Dostoevsky was a other, and who shared his passion for their company through the character Natassya Filippovna in The Idiot who when announcing her engagement to the prince cries out. “I’m ready – give me champagne – let’s go to the Gypsies!”

 
     The colorful Gypsy life was influencing the arts – spicing up the complexion of advertising – and the potency of the fashion industry. Nineteen century painters like Henri Rousseau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh were invigorating their canvases with the Gypsy model while authors Guy de Maupassant, Charlotte Bronte, Walter Scott, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle were revitalizing their stories through a wide range of fervent Gypsy characters including Bram Stoker Gypsy servants to the heinous Count Dracula…
 
 

Attracting the attention of one of the Gypsies, Jonathan threw down the letter and the gold coin, gesturing with his hands that he needed the letter mailed. The Gypsy seemed to understand and agree, and Jonathan breathed a sigh of relief.

      The next evening, however, the count came into the room, sat beside Jonathan, and handed him the letter he had written to Mina. The letter had been opened. The gold piece, of course, was gone….Bram Stoker’s Dracula


  The Gypsies have been influencing the counter culture movement for over 200 years. 

     It wasn’t only in France; Spain was going through a similar social revolution. A new era of nationalism was turning the Francophobe “fashionista” away from the latest styles of Paris and upon the flamboyant Gypsy vendors at the local marketplace. It was their exaggerated style of dress that caught the shopper’s attention, and then it was just a matter of reeling in the mesmerized mark. The Gypsy style sent shock waves across the fashion industry in ways that are still being felt today in the glamourous styles of the flamenco costume: “traje de flamenco”.

    The Bohemians spread their message across the English Channel into shuttered Victorian society forming the anti-corset “Aesthetics” movement and its branch of the occult that came straight out of Gypsy mysticism.

     The 20th century brought us a re-modeling of the loose and baggy style Gypsy pants into the jazz era zoot-suit and that was being helped along by Gypsy jazz musicians like the great Django Reinhardt and his “hot jazz guitar”. The carefree boogie-woogie era was intellectualized into the “cool as a cucumber” Beat Generation or “Beatniks” as they liked to be called that eventually slipped back to its Gypsy roots with the “flower-power” Hippy movement and their free and loose styled long dresses embellished with floral patterns, tassels, and an exaggeration of colors in the tie-dye fashion.  The Hippies later gave birth – and quite literally in some cases – to today’s Bohos.

  
     Bohemian – “you've come along way, baby”; from rejected “water drinkers”  - across the fashion runway and onto the shelves of major clothing stores.  Yet once a counter-culture movement goes mainstream and Department Stores start selling “peasant skirts” - the movement begins losing its pizzazz. So, what’s in store for counter-culture movements of the future? Who can say yet perhaps the best place to start looking is back to the roots – back behind the intangible walls of the Gypsies non-conforming society for the next alteration.

 The End

by Chuck Todaro



FOOTNOTES
(1) Parisian Review, August 1427


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