Everything had to be new

I enjoyed Luc Sante’s ‘The Birth of Bohemia in Paris’ in the New York Review of Books from 22 October 2015. The way 19th century Parisian artists began creating fleeting, odd fashions sounds quite familiar to modern ears.

[Artistic bohemia’s] earliest manifestation was hatched around 1818 by the students of Guillaume Guillon-Lethière, a painter…

They … launched, perpetrated, and squelched dozens of fads, in a way that appears to have had few precedents. There was first a medieval fad, countering the prevailing obsession with Greece and Rome, which began with them reading cheap romances and soon saw them wearing satin jerkins and gigot sleeves, carrying around lyres and short swords, and speaking in affected medievalise. They even changed their names: every Jean became a Jehan, every Pierre a Petrus, every Louis a Loÿs. Then they were onto the Sots (via Sir Walter Scott), the modern Greeks (thanks to Byron), the Turks (by way of Lamartine’s Méditations and Hugo’s Orientales). They alternately grew their hair to their shoulders, after the English Cavaliers, and shaved it down to a stubble, after the Roundheads. At the theatre they made a great show of yawning at tragedies and laughing at melodramas. “A great anxiety haunted them: everything had to be new at all costs.”

By 1830 they’d split into different camps with different aesthetics and interests, then:

All of them faded away around 1838, leaving only a joint hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom they called “grocers”. The bourgeoisie, however, converted those fads into consumable objects, which were still turning up at flea markets a century and a half later:

Clocks in the shape of cathedrals, gothic bindings, letter-openers in the form of daggers, inkwells and night-lights and innumerable other objects made to look like dungeons or medieval castles with drawbridges, posterns, brattices, machicolations, watchtowers, allures…

It sounds familiar, the pattern of young artists combining clothes and ideas from earlier periods, desperate to make something “new” out of the old, all of it ultimately commercialised and sold to more conservative markets keen for something “arty” or “different”. But all of this in the early 19th century, decades before even the early example of the Creative Class — Picasso, Apollinaire, Modigliani, et al — helped transform the quiet village of Montmartre into something rather more louche, around the turn of the century:

The Montmartre bohemians had no choice but to get their clothes from the flea market, and weird clothes were cheaper because they were less in demand. They wore Rembrandt hats, cavalry trousers, sailors’ jerseys, Spanish capes, coachmen’s capes, hooded cloaks, mechanics’ jumpsuits, dusters, priests’ hats, jockeys’ caps; the women sometimes unearthed elaborate ballgowns or the short eighteenth-century jackets called pet en l’air (fart in the open) — it was as if they were replaying all the fads of [Guillon-Lethière’s crowd] at once. Since oddball health regimes were also, almost inevitably, in effect, people went barefoot for reasons of “circulation” and wore colourful turbans that allegedly relieved headaches. Their parties were as loud and disruptive as things could get before the advent of amplified music: firecrackers, animal noises, breaking bottles, obscene songs, target practice with revolvers.

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4 Jul 2016 at Twitter