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Jane Birkin in La Piscine movie
Jane Birkin in La Piscine (1969)

Goodbye Jane Birkin, sparkling originator of French girl style

From pioneering the naked dress to a blatant disregard for her battered Hermès namesake, in an era of microtrends, overconsumption, and the endless scroll, Birkin’s essence feels like gold dust

“I'd like to be filmed as if I were transparent, anonymous, like everyone else," says Jane Birkin in Jane B. par Agnès V, the experimental biopic by her friend and filmmaker, Agnès Varda

The 1988 film was made to mark Birkin’s 40th birthday, conceived when she shared her apprehension about growing older with Varda. A wacky, vivacious homage, it is as generous and sympathetic as it is gorgeously tangential to all Birkin’s observations and identities. We meet the British-French actor, singer, model, cultural touchstone and style icon’s many multitudes. Though not Birkin’s wish, her elements have kept a brilliant opacity in fashion and culture. 

Jane Birkin, who has died aged 76, is a definitive icon. The ‘French girl style’ and Parisian ‘it girl’ descriptors she became synonymous with may feel overwrought today, stretched taut against the TikTok algorithm, but the sentiments endure because of the timeless elegance and attitude Birkin epitomised. That’s not to strip Birkin of any creative agency or vision – it’s the opposite. A confident sensuality in the simple, a preciseness in what presents as carefree and effortless.

In her long and varied career, Birkin came to mainstream attention in the 1960s when she absconded from psychedelic London for Paris to meet the New Wave. The scene found its face. There, she was cast in her French film debut, Slogan, and famously linked – creatively and passionately – with Serge Gainsbourg, a counterculture couple du jour. Looking back at old photos of Birkin and Gainsbourg feels like another world. Beside the older Gainsbourg, she is gamine, bohemian, and quietly commanding, snapped often in see-through dresses, diaphanous blouses and white crochet and linens. 

There’s her plunging semi-sheer wedding dress, or the image of the couple in matching iridescent outfits by then-French fashion enfant-terrible Paco Rabanne. One image shows Gainsbourg at her feet, clutching at her knee-high leather boot as she moves to take off. Jaunty tourist pics in Oxford and hazy snaps of St Tropez make art of their touch. Their public-facing relationship made outward horniness chic, and their worldwide hit, “Je t’aime moi non plus” – punctuated by Birkin’s ecstatic moans – was an aural inflection of her sexy, idiosyncratic style. An undone hotness showing you its seams.

Birkin’s sartorial peers of the 60s ran the gamut: bombshell Brigette Bardot, the pink-suited Jackie Kennedy, Factory Girl Edie Sedgwick, a geometric print legged and mini-skirted Mary Quant. Birkin captured the era as an understated original, sensual yet playful – she was frequently photographed sans shoes, wearing white tees and blue jeans or hotpants and men’s suit jackets, never without her signature overflowing wicker basket on her arm. The basket accompanied her to the supermarket, Côte D’Azur, the red carpet, dinners at Maxims in Paris. This aesthetic rhythm made her eccentric evening wardrobe all the more thrilling – midriff plunges and nipple-studded dresses, floor-length sequins, a crushed pink velvet gown and body chain belt for Cannes, ushering in the unabashed glamour of the later 60s and 70s. 

The origin story of fashion’s most elusive and high-status bag, the Hermès Birkin, reflects her singular perspective – and speaks to me personally as a life-long bag lady, carting about trinkets and *necessary* personal ephemera in numerous totes. Birkin was, by chance, sitting next to Hermès’ chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight. Her straw bag emptied onto the plane floor, and she extolled her frustrations to Dumas at never finding a leather bag to do the job. They devised a collaboration and took her name, launching the Birkin bag in 1984. Its chokehold held fast through the 90s and early 00s as a symbol of the wealthy fashion elite, from the Olsen twins to Lady Gaga and the Kardashian-Jenners. But bridle Birkin’s irreverence, one could never. She would carry her bloated, worn handbag, overstuffed and accessorised with worry beads, cards, keychains, doo-dahs. Functionality begets fun begets frenetic personal substance – The ‘What’s In My Bag?’ YouTube format starts and ends here.

On film, Birkin’s style prevails over the expectations of the era’s starlets. The gingham prints, crochet cover ups, tees and flared jeans worn by the actor in her role as the insolent and lovely Penelope in La Piscine, costumed by Courréges, are looks that define summers then and now. Like any true style icon, she propelled herself through life phases with fashion, expanding her identity with style later in life. In the 80s, she cut her hair off, and leaned into her boyish aspects, unspooling notions of sex appeal. “I found myself the most interesting at 40,” she said. “I started wearing Scotting cotton marcels, agnès b. men’s shirts, oversized pants upgraded with a thin red leather belt and sneakers without laces.” In her runway debut for Martin Margiela’s Hermès in 2000, her famous wide smile was her best accessory.

Birkin’s touch is palpable today. She’s a pioneer of the ubiquitous ‘naked dress’ trend and my own personal wardrobe staple: nipples as accessories. The Birkin-to-Fenty pop culture pipeline can be traced from Birkin’s Cannes appearances to Rihanna’s red carpet retort “do my tits bother you?”. Birkin, too, was the prototype for the 90s/00s uniforms of Kate Moss, Alexa Chung et al - whether ‘off duty model’ or Kate’s 1993 sheer slip and black knickers, it’s a craft of elastic ease that intersected with the modern sensibilities of boho and indie sleaze. ‘Basic’, today, is a knotted word. But to channel Birkin’s brand of ‘basic’ relates to the most intimate understanding of your own wants, comforts, and self expression through what you put on your body. ‘Basic’ is liberation and possibility.

Considering how style is processed and fretted over today, blunted by microtrends, overconsumption, ‘personal branding’ and the endless scroll, Birkin’s essence feels like gold dust. She was a tectonic originator of style as attitude. Contemporary displays of effortlessness are devised by TikTok formulas for capsule wardrobes. In remembering Birkin, we clothe ourselves first in our chaos, our liberations, our lives lived. Her axis-spinning style story reflects her tumults, as she once put so charismatically: “But who wants an easy life? It’s boring!” 

I’ll smile wider, and test the weary straps of my Telfar even harder this week in Jane’s name. In Jane B. par Agnès V, she says: “I like melancholy, so I write in the past tense”. But Birkin will live forever in those split-second style touches as you rush out the door into the summer night air.

Revisit the time Birkin starred in a Saint Laurent campaign in the gallery above.