Portrait of a Woman Dressed as a "Gypsy"

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

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About This Artifact

This photograph portrays a woman wearing ethnic adorment and offers interesting insights into 19th century culture and counter-culture as expressed through fashion. On one hand, the so-called Aesthetic Movement celebrated free-flowing fashion for middle- and upper-class women, liberated from corsets and bustles. As a genteel counter-cultural phenomenon, it flew in the face of conventional styles and rigid Victorian expectations. Conversely, it was mirrored at the opposite end of the social scale by a fascination by artists and others with what they saw as a “gypsy” lifestyle freed from contemporary cultural conventions. Painters Edouard Manet’s “Gypsy (woman) with a Cigarette” (1870s), and John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” (1882), and “Gypsy Encampment” (ca. 1912) are two of many artists who idealized “gypsies” as free spirits. Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” (1875) and Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boehme” (1896) likewise featured via operatic works people normally viewed as socially and morally unacceptable. Although audiences were initially scandalized, both operas became widely performed.

By the end of the century, then, counter-cultural works previously seen as scandalous gradually and grudgingly became popularized. Victorian standards of conformity were breaking down. It is in this context that Scholfield’s photograph of a woman clothed in “gypsy” garb, with a fan and tambourine becomes understandable. The idealized image was accepted even as the Romani people, who inspired the “gypsy” fashions continued to be criminalized and discriminated against.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. To what extent do artists foreshadow shifts in culture? Or do they stimulate change?
  2. Why might the woman in the photo have chosen to be portrayed as a gypsy?
  3. Do you see the way that "Hippies" dressed in the 1960s-1970s as counter cultural?