Dress-down Friday: Bohemian Schwabing

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Munich district of Schwabing was synonymous with Bohemianism and much like Montparnasse its name was used to indicate a state of mind as much as the district which inspired it. Artists, writers and other creative temperaments came from all over Germany and to a lesser extent beyond (Schwabing having less of the international pull of Montparnasse). They often left behind dull, bourgeois backgrounds or even, in the case of Franziska zu Reventlow (born on this day in 1871), the aristocracy.

Their living habits may have been unconventional but by day, at least, many of the Schwabing Bohemians appeared suprisingly conservative, barely distinguishable from public servants of the era. When even the rebels wore starched collars you can see why kaftan’d Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach stood out as such an exception to the rule.

But this was only part of the story. This territory inspired experimentation with new identities and dressing up was a favoured activity for special occasions. Fasching, especially, was an opportunity to frock up and step out. Fasching is the southern German version of Carnival, a wild, pre-Lenten celebration of uncharacteristically Mediterranean abandon which up-ends everything the Germans hold most dear, favouring chaos over order, fun over responsibility and make-believe over realism. Much like the Quat’zarts Ball in Paris, it was an annual opportunity for the Bohemians to really let loose. The difference in Munich was that all around them the rest of the city was doing likewise, with even the most hidebound burgher harlequinising in celebration.

Reventlow features heavily in these revels, as does poet Stefan George. His costumed personae reflected both his culture and hauteur. Discovering a physical similarity with Wagner, for instance, George didn’t run screaming in horror from the mirror, instead he played up the resemblance. On one occasion he is dressed as Dante, surrounded by his acolytes who formed the Kosmiker group. The most intriguing image shows a Bohemian Christ with disciples – a daring choice for conservative, Catholic Munich. Around the same time Reventlow published an irreverent article entitled “Christus: Ein Interview” (“Christ: An Interview”). In it she talks to an artist’s model paid to pose like Christ, a Messiah who in this case speaks in broad Berlin dialect.

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9 comments

  1. Fanny zu Reventlow! I once had a cluster of wikipedia pages bookmarked and when I’d bring it up her name was near the top; made me want to speak it aloud every time. It’s like a verbal party.

    I have an aunt from Munich. She’s the very definition of a hausfrau, despite have a high-powered job. She knits, she scrapbooks, she listens to Micheal Bolton. It’s amusing to think that she might’ve had such bohemian ancestors.

    • She’s so interesting, and more or less unknown outside Germany. She could be very funny as well. Stefan George was such a pompous old blowhard and she saw right through him.

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