Have you guys stopped crying yet? Because I haven’t and the tears are about to flow even harder as we take a look back at the iconic actress, singer, muse, mother of three, the face of the swinging 60s and French-British it girl Jane Birkin and her life, after having passed away yesterday at age 76.
Birkin was born in England and made her major cinema debut by starring in the 1968 Joe Massot British psychedelic film Wonderwall. By 1969, she moved to France where she would reside for the rest of her life. Learning how to speak French off a tape recorder, Birkin was fully bilingual but when speaking French she kept a soft-spoken English accent, something that would fascinate the French public and only add onto her innocent, almost child-like charm.
That same year, Birkin met the singer Serge Gainsbourg and it didn’t take long for the two to start their love affair that would last a decade. Together, the two re-recorded Je t’aime… moi non plus, the erotic song that Gainsbourg originally wrote and recorded with his ex Brigitte Bardot. The sexual sounds of Birkin’s moaning on the track actually got the song banned from the radio and even condemned by the Vatican, but that didn’t stop the whole country from listening to it endlessly.
During her time with Gainsbourg, Birkin had a complete image change, becoming an icon revered for her beauty, a sex symbol and credited with bringing the swinging London aesthetic to France. This new sexy and charming look was one that was strange to Birkin, who grew up thinking she looked rather ‘boyish’ with her petite form.
The image of Birkin would soon flood the theatres, with the artist expanding her on-screen appearances. She starred in films like Jacques Deray’s 1969 The Swimming Pool, Roger Vadim’s 1972 Don Juan, or if Don Juan was a woman alongside Bardot, and the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile directed by John Guillermin to name a few.
As most figures who are in the public eye, Birkin became admired for her style which was recognised by an effortless Parisian look with casual denim, boho-style ruffles, fringes and sleeveless vests, and her straw basket she would take everywhere. Though it wasn’t until 1983 that she would truly make her mark on the fashion world thanks to a serendipitous meeting.
Straw basket in hand, Birkin was rushing through the airport to catch her flight when the bag gave up on her, spilling all its contents on the floor. It was none other than the then-chief executive of Hermès Jean-Louis Dumas saw the whole thing happen, and after Birkin complained to him that she couldn’t find a bag big enough for all her belongings, the two got to brainstorm and draw what would become the iconic Birkin Bag right then and there on their flight.
Later in her life, Birkin took a step back from the limelight, still releasing songs here and there, and in 2016 appearing alongside Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull and Courtney Love for Saint Laurent shot by Hedi Slimane. She also worked with Amnesty International in helping combat the AIDS crisis and made her political stance well clear when she held a free concert at the Place de la République in 2017 to protest the far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
While Birkin was sensationalised for her looks, the artist decided to take her image into her own hands, and carved out an identity for herself that went beyond just surface-level aesthetics. While looking ‘boyish’ was something Birkin grew up feeling insecure about, she embraced the look later in her life where she decided to cut her hair “like a boy” in her 40s.
Birkin led a life with grace, humility and intelligence, going from an it girl everyone strived to, and still strives to this day to match, to a revolutionary symbol of elegance, forever remembered as a cultural icon.
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