Pin It

A brief history of bob haircuts in French movies (and why they do it best)

From Amélie to Climax, we dip into the archives for the best bobs French cinema

Welcome to Beauty School, the corner of Dazed Beauty dedicated to learning. From guides to histories, this is where we shed light on past subcultural movements and educate our readers on current trends and various goings-on.

Most people think of Louise Brooks, the American actress, as one of the first to popularise the bob haircut in the 1920s. She was the very picture of chic, with her face tightly framed by a dark pincer claw bob. But before her, way back in the 1890s, came Polaire, a French actress described as having “a shock of short, dark hair”. And, well, the point is: the French have sort of always been ahead of the curve in matters of style, haven’t they?

During the 1920s, the bob was genuinely a bold fashion statement. It was the mark of a free-spirited woman who went against the grain, who was independent and had an insatiable hunger for living. But by the tale-end of the decade, the style had become so popular (thanks to Brooks) that it was said to be the dominant hairstyle for women in the Western world. Naturally that meant it lost its significance of something daring and edgy. Soon the trend simply started to wane into the 30s and 40s, with women growing their hair out into different styles.

You can see its first comeback in the 50s, with Motown singers like Diana Ross. But only with the arrival of the French New Wave, in 1960s Paris, did the bob regain any of the boldness and originality that helped define the look in its early days. Once again it was the height of chic, worn by young characters who lead exciting lives around the backstreets of Montmartre.

Since then, the bob has become synonymous with French female actors. American incarnations were often hat-tips to their French originators. Tarantino with Pulp Fiction, for example, had Uma Thurman don a bob as a nod to the French New Wave. Another iconic example is Natalie Portman in Leon – which, by the way, was directed by a Frenchman. Coincidence? I think not. The French have owned this look for the best part of a century. They’ve kept the look alive for decades, shooting us with Cupid’s arrow every time a French female actor’s hair pertly bounces beneath her ears. Here’s a brief look at their finest – and why they do it best.

Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962)

In the early 60s, Jean-Luc Godard directed his wife Anna Karina as a twentysomething Parisian woman called Nana. She’s a hopeful actress who works in a record shop and who, struggling to make ends meet, descends into prostitution. Her striking bob haircut is inky black and curls by her ears. Sometimes she wears it with a hair clip, other times with a hairband pushed through it. It’s made more dramatic by the stark black and white cinematography. The total effect? You instantly fall under the spell of this woman who goes to the cinema by herself and cries during old movies.

Chantal Goya in Masculin Feminin (1966)

In another 60s French New Wave flick from Godard, the pop star Chantal Goya plays an alternate version of herself during the promotion of her latest record. In one scene she teases a guy who has a crush on her. She applies her lipstick and combs her hair, perhaps her most distinguishable feature. It falls just beneath her chin, the fringe covering her eyebrows. With every combing it seems to drive the guy crazy. Such is the power of the French bob.

Jeanne Moreau in The Bride Wore Black (1968)

One of the more extreme picks comes courtesy of the late Jeanne Moreau. It’s extreme because it looks like a Lego haircut, a little too perfect, which is fine to say since her bobs (yes multiple, one dark, one light) are in actual fact wigs. They’re a disguise for this widow whose husband was snipered on their wedding day. Wig or not, it’s a striking look for Moreau, who would look great whatever chop she had.

Sophie Marceau in L'amour braque (1985)

Heading into the 80s, French starlet Sophie Marceau possessed one of the more refined versions of the bob. In this romantic, very French drama, she plays the girlfriend of a bank robber, caught in a love triangle. Her haircut is doll-like and perfect, not a strand of hair out of place. It’s almost futuristic, like something out of Blade Runner, while at the same time a sort of throwback to Louise Brooks’ pert bob. To top the look off, Marceau wears assorted necklaces: beads, pearls, and most strikingly, a black choker.

Juliette Binoche in Bad Blood (1986)

Juliette Binoche has more than done her bit for the French bob. See her in Three Colours: Blue, or in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The best Binoche bob? That’ll be Binoche in 1986’s The Night is Young, aka Bad Blood, a strange movie about a near future where a disease is killing young people who make love without emotional involvement. Binoche’s dark, slightly choppy cut has a bounce and stands out against her pale skin. Along with her glowing red jumper, you can’t tear your eyes off her. The Binoche bob is a genre in itself.

Georges Du Fresne in Ma Vie En Rose (1997)

The 1997 trans movie Ma Vie En Rose, aka My Life in Pink, follows a young transgender girl called Ludovic who believes she was born in the wrong body. Her bob plays with the androgyny inherent in the look, as something that looks great on both boys and girls. It also looks great with a 90s striped T-shirt and heaps of dance moves.

Audrey Tautou in Amélie (2001)

Arguably the first iconic bob of the 21st century, and the one that kept the torch burning, was that of Audrey Tautou in Amélie. As the Parisian do-gooder, she wears it like Louise Brooks, with a tiny fringe and a short cut. She’s the reason why you could enter any hair salon today and ask for an “Amélie” and they’d instantly know what you wanted. Bob, Amélie – they’re inseparable in the mind.

Soko in Girlfriends (2006)

This 2006 French teen comedy was Léa Seydoux’s first movie. She didn’t have a bob, but her co-star Soko, the French singer-songwriter, had a glorious one. As Manon, one of a group of friends who dream of winning a dance contest, Soko is the owner of an unruly bob. It’s as if Louise Brooks’ classic look has been crossed with Ally Sheedy’s character in Breakfast Club. It’s messy and tangled, proving there are no rules when it comes to the shape-shifting French bob. We’ve come a long way since Polaire, that’s for sure.

Thea Carla Schott in Climax (2018)

Among all the eye-popping visuals of Gaspar Noé’s Climax – a typically trippy descent into a psychedelic nightmare – is the brilliant blonde bob that sits atop Thea Carla Schott’s head. As Psyche, one of a dance group gone wild, she glides among the partyers, chain-smoking and guzzling sangria. Her bob is basically the blonde version of the Brooks original: short, tightly cropped, sharp fringe, with small curls in front of her ears. With Noé’s film, the bob is suddenly shot back to its original roots, to the idea that those who possess such a hairdo are fast-living denizens of an exciting underworld. That said, I doubt they ever reached these levels of depravity back in the day.