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Boho, Uh-oh: The Bohemian Politic

Jane Santos

The current consumer of bohemian fashion is one who imagines herself identifying with various world cultures. Yet she is really a shopper, mixing pieces from different price ranges, easily weaving in and out of the experiences of the destitute and decadent by choice of dress.

Last March, Glamour magazine listed its top 50 list of Best Dressed Women that included several no-brainers such as Kate Moss, Sienna Miller, Sarah Jessica Parker and my personal favorite, Posh Spice. But there was one obvious and unforgivable omission from Glamour's list: that is, the reliable, exploited mostly female worker in the global assembly line who is undoubtedly the truly symbolic woman at the very epicenter of today's fashion.

This past season, fashion artfully pantomimed the dynamics of Third World labor and in an eerie feat of parallelism; the chic American woman was at once fashionably congruent to the exploited female worker in the global assembly line. Designers, clothing companies, and fashion houses mined the hinterlands of the Third World for both labor and fashion inspiration. Unbeknownst to them, stylish American women and the exploited female sweatshop laborer went toe-to-toe in a competition for Best Dressed Peasant. In the endurance category, anyway, the laborer topped the like of Jude Law's fiancée, as measured by her pace of work, length of hours worked, meagerness of wage, and toxic chemicals breathed in on a daily basis.

To get a sense of the "bohemian" that has captured women's fancy in past months, one need only look to Ebay to grasp the broad range of styles encompassed in the look. A search for bohemian women's clothing yields no less than 3,000 results. These sellers ain't selling '50s bohemian kitsch such as berets, stripped shirts, black turtlenecks and bongo drums; you know, the kind of bohemian expressed so memorably in Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Rather, Ebay sellers in the know peddle clothes using popular keywords such as "Indian", "hippy", "ethnic", "batik", "peasant", "Mexican", and "Asian", thereby demonstrating how conceptions of "bohemia", "free love", "eccentricity", and "eroticisation" mixed with the look of real-world marginalization and desperate poverty, make for a hot commodity. Far removed are the undertones of the free-spiritedness, free-love advocations of peace and pacifism that was carried with the word "bohemia" in a prior decade.

Current bohemian fashion consists of a murky hodgepodge of just about anything that looks worn down, rustic and exotic. The look is that of the Renaissance Fair Goer/ Aspiring Belly Dancer/ Romantic Bird Lady/ Lonely Planet World Traveler/and Aging Hippy rummaging through trash bins for recyclables. Dressed like this, women look as if they've been traveling in distant lands with rugged terrains and are playing the part of the participant observer (but without any actual self-reflexivity). It's as if they picked up native garments here and there to blend in with the locals and not be so conspicuous as wealthy tourists. In India they've picked up a muslin tunic, in Africa a dashiki, in Mexico a poncho, and in Asia a bamboo-handle purse.

And yet luxurious details in clothing simultaneously contradict the appearance of simple and "traditional" native garments and betray the social-economic status of the wearer. For instance, tops are embellished with sequins, fringe, and beads; leather belts are stamped with grommets, chandelier earrings are laden with jewels; and shoes are beautifully beaded. One who imagines herself identifying with various world cultures, yet is really a shopper, mixes pieces from different price ranges, easily weaving in and out of the experiences of the destitute and decadent by choice of dress. The look is at once pared down, carefree and free flowing, yet lavish and self-indulgent at the same time.

Despite that exhaustive description, it's hard to get any sense at all of what bohemian fashion is. Bohemian fashion is made up of the visual representation of ambiguous ideas about what is ethnic, Eastern, worldly and Oriental - yet these are concepts that vary depending on the eye of the beholder. In seeking out the meaning behind the statement made by bohemian fashion, it would be worthwhile to consider how we determine what is "bohemian" or "tribal", "ethnic" or "racial", "Third World" or "post-industrial world", "native" or "foreign". It's definitely difficult to pinpoint the relative subtle and subjective meanings to these various terms, but these terms are crucial to our interpretation of recurring cultural motifs.

Interpreting the scatter-brained logic behind bohemian fashion is complicated by the ahistorical damnation of post-modernity, where supposedly there is nothing new, and fashion is doomed to re-hash and re-cycle the innovations of the past. Yet analyzing fashion merely in terms of its formal aspects, i.e., how something is cut or shaped or what colors or hemlines are popular, ahistoricizes fashion and prohibits discussion of the content and signification of clothing as signs. As with art, literature, and other cultural products, analyzing fashion in terms of form occludes one from perceiving the historical conditions that allow these trends to take place. While post-modernism's privileging of space and time makes it more difficult to grasp history, one should definitely not abandon the task altogether. In attempting to analyze current fashion trends, critical theorist Frederic Jameson's reminder to "Always historize!" stands as a reliable compass point with which to feel one's way out of the post-modern abyss.

To think through current bohemian fashion trends, it makes sense to go back and consider other moments when bohemian fashion was popular. For example, let's consider Gwen Stefani and Madonna turning henna, saris, and bindis into overnight sensations; Karl Lagerfeld outraging Muslims in 1994 by printing verses from the Koran on dresses; the Beatles sporting Nehru-collared jackets after visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India and studying Eastern philosophy in 1968; and of course, the famous appropriation of African-American culture by the Beatniks in the 1950s, famously critiqued by Norman Mailer in his 1957 essay, "The White Negro".

In historicizing fashion, it's also important to remember that fashion is, all in all, meant to be fun and can't always be taken too seriously. And fashion does reserve the right to tease and fetishize, as seen, for example, when British designer Vivienne Westwood successfully re-worked bondage gear into punk rock fashion in the 1970s. However, in referencing and comparing trends of today and trends of yore, one finds that instances in which bohemian fashion was popular corresponded with international and domestic political affairs, trends in colonialism and imperialism, changing social attitudes towards people of color, as well as genuine respect and admiration for other cultures at times. Consider these two examples from fashion history:

In 1911, Paul Poiret, the famed French fashion designer, introduced a bold new line that marked one of the earliest and most famous appearances of "Oriental" fashion in the 20th century. Poiret's cutting-edge "Oriental" designs included harem pants, caftans, tiered skirts, headdresses, turbans and tunics. In Raiding the Icebox, UCLA film professor Peter Wollen argues that Poiret's designs embodied the rampant Orientalism dominating French culture at the time. Wollen describes the lavish "Thousand and Second Night" party Poiret threw to celebrate his new line. He says, "The whole party revolved around this pantomime of slavery and liberation set in a phantasmagoric fabled East." According to Wollen, Parisian culture was in awe of the Orient, seduced by the Russian ballet's performance of Shéhérazade and ecstatic over the publication of the new translation of The Thousand and One Nights; and Poiret's fashions further whetted the public's appetite for Orientalism. In addition, Poiret's designs greatly impacted haute couture, and set the precedent for Orientalism in avant-garde fashion.

Just one decade later in the '20s, fashion conflating the bohemian and Oriental became trendy among bourgeoisie women in Europe and the United States. In Reading 1922, scholar Michael North discusses how bohemian fashion trends, such as Pharaoh blouses printed with hieroglyphs, were based on stereotypes of Egyptian clothing and were the product of the Western world's fascination with Egypt during 1922. He emphasizes the significance of the excavation of King Tutankhamen's tomb, by British archaeologist Howard Carter on November 1922, as one of the first modern media events in the 20th century. North says, "In part, the discovery had such a strong impact because it coincided with the crest of a preexisting fad for Egyptian things." Like Poiret's fashions, the sensational discovery of King Tut's tomb occurred at a time when Orientalism was already in vogue. The archeological discovery, and subsequent struggle between the British and Egyptians over the rights to King Tut's remains, increased the "Egypt-omania" craze in fashion, literature, film, design and architecture.

An actual 1923 advertisement for Spring Apparel published in the New York Times and quoted in Reading 1922 read: "Bedell sponsors the Tut-Ankh-Amen Influence in silhouette and embellishment. Capricious fashion, ever in the quest of the New, delves into the realms of the Pharaohs for inspiration. Just as the ancient tombs are resplendent with their rare works of art, so the Bedell salons disclose an ensemble of brilliant attire for springtime." North paints a convincing portrait of how, by wearing Egyptian-inspired clothing, women were able to simulate the thrilling experience of Howard Carter, as he explored the contents of King Tut's tomb. In purchasing ancient Egypt-inspired clothing, Western women thereby played a role in staking ownership of Egypt's sacred treasures by the British government.

Flashing forward to this period of time, these two historical examples of Poiret's Oriental look and King Tut Fashions can be compared with current bohemian fashion trends. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that American women's fascination with Eastern Oriental fashion bears any relation to current international affairs in which the Middle East is also the political hot potato? Could fashion trends be a subconscious engagement, critique, or affirmation of pressing issues such as the occupation of Iraq, the destruction of precious artifacts in the Middle East, and the United States' avowed mission to "liberate" women in the Middle East from the tyranny of regimes like Afghanistan and Iraq? In this day and age, where the Bush Administration has pursued its agenda for a New World Order, and issued the warning that people of the world are either on the side of the United States or on the side of the terrorists, the wearing of bohemian and Middle East-inspired fashions takes on a whole new political dimension. This past season's trends could also have been indicative of women's earnest and respectful desire to engage with "the other" and establish awareness and validation, rather than a complete disregard, for the Third World women whose style they mimic and clothing they wear.

Just working through how notions of bohemian fashion have evolved and remained the same has broadened my awareness of how fashion can racialize others and also, how the choices we make about what to wear can re-configure our racial or ethnic identity. It's easy to forget that something that seems so frivolous, such as fashion, encompasses relationships of power. But then again, because fashion is frivolous for one, doesn't mean that fashion is frivolous for another.

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