In the realm of contemporary culture few can be said to effectively evoke the image of the effortlessly cool girl that has become synonymous with the name Jane Birkin. If you can’t put a face to the name, chances are you have come across throwaway references to Hermès’ eponymous Birkin bag in a slew of early 2000s TV and film. Contrary to what one might think when seeing the sheer number of online guides listing the Dos and Don’ts of how to qualify for a chance to purchase a $15,000 luxury handbag, the inspiration behind what is now a universally recognized status symbol is quite unlike its namesake.
Born in Marylebone, West London, Jane Mallory Birkin was the daughter of English film/stage actress Judy Campbell and Navy lieutenant commander David Birkin. She grew up in the affluent district of Chelsea and attended boarding school, where she recounts being bullied for her waifish, androgynous physique, a hallmark of the quintessential Birkin look. At 17 Birkin was already married to English composer John Barry, best remembered today for arranging the score for eleven James Bond films. Barry also wrote the score for The Knack…and How To Get It, a British comedy reflective of the Zeitgeist of the Swinging London scene, in which Birkin made her – uncredited – film debut as ‘Girl on motorbike’.
She first pops up on screen during the opening credits as one of the many identically dressed sexual conquests of Tolen (Ray Brooks) wearing a mid-length skirt and a white ribbed mock neck sweater ostensibly without a bra – a Birkin staple. Her heavily eyelined eyes scour the room for a chair to sit. Next time we see her she’s riding a motorcycle behind the aforementioned casanova in a black vinyl trench coat and ballet flats. The “character” she portrays is a mere set piece for the men around her to make offhand vulgar remarks about, but for the three minutes she’s on-screen, you can’t take your eyes off of her.
Birkin’s breakout role came as ‘The Blond’ in Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 cult-classic Blow-Up, wherein she plays an aspiring teen model/groupie desperate for the attention of a fashion photographer (David Hemmings). As The Blond, Birkin uses her budding sexual prowess for a chance to be photographed. She shows up to the studio unannounced, accompanied by a friend, donning a striped A-line cut minidress in clashing Mod colors, opaque pastel green tights, blue kitten heels and her signature basket bag. It’s a look emblematic of its time, elevated by Birkin’s coquettish on-screen presence.
The playful yet put-together nature of the outfit is reflective of a young girl play-acting at being an adult by trying to dress the part. As the scene goes on, the photographer gradually becomes more aggressive, making his intentions clear by forcing the garments off of the girls’ bodies. They end up in an impromptu catfight, find themselves naked on the floor of the set, and leave without photos. It’s an uncomfortable scene that confounds sexual encroachment with sexual gratification – the framing of the scene plays down the gravity of the violation, made all the more disturbing by the contrast of The Blonde’s wide-eyed naivete and correspondingly whimsical wardrobe.
Following the international success of Blow-Up, Birkin had her cross-cultural breakthrough in Jacques Deray’s sizzling 1969 erotic psychodrama The Swimming Pool (or La Piscine) – featuring perhaps her most memorable on-screen wardrobe – which went on to solidify her status as a style icon of the late 60s and by her own admission enabled her to stay and pursue a career in France. She stars opposite fellow New Wave cinema icons Alain Delon and Romy Schneider who portray Jean-Paul and Marianne respectively, a couple whose vacation in a luxurious St. Tropez villa gets interrupted by the sudden arrival of Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his 18-year-old daughter Penelope (Birkin).
We first meet Penelope as she steps out of her father’s convertible in a black and white gingham miniskirt paired with a sheer white blouse, heeled ballet flats and oversized sunglasses, carrying the familiar basket bag which was Birkin’s totem. She huffs and puffs with boredom, as we later learn, having been dragged along for the ride as her father’s prized possession and paraded around for how her youth and beauty reflects on him.
We see Penelope in a variety of different looks in a similar color palette throughout the film: lounging by the pool in a white crochet one-piece she wears over her bikini; frolicking in an A-Line gingham mini dress in the garden; and dancing in a white shirt and bell bottom jeans at a house party. Penelope’s wardrobe is textbook Birkin – classic pieces styled to bring out the playfulness behind the coy exterior of her girlish demeanor and delicate features. But it’s not the clothes themselves that foster that well-coveted impression of casual elegance, rather it’s the sense of personal style Birkin imbues in them through the way she carries herself.
Within the context of the film Penelope’s wardrobe contrasts with that of Marianne’s elegant sexy backless dresses, a visual indicator of the rivalry induced by the age difference between the two women. This distinction is most potent at Harry’s funeral, where we see Penelope in a black micromini tunic, whereas Marianne dons a more demure, white trapeze-shaped dress. Much like Birkin herself, Penelope is the epitome of youthful glamor, representing the stylistic sensibilities of a new generation; less conservative than its predecessors.
But with age comes perspective – a maxim that is certainly reflected in the maturation of Birkin’s personal style. By the time Agnès Varda got a chance to turn the camera on the woman inside the clothes, she had switched out mini skirts and bell bottoms for oversized blazers and boyfriend-cut jeans – going so far as to cringe at pictures of herself from the 60s. Even style icons experience second-hand embarrassment when faced with the en-vogue fashion choices of their youth, no matter how groundbreaking and timeless they might be considered in retrospect. Nevertheless, the sartorial legacy of Jane Birkin lives on: whether it be through her cinematic wardrobe that continues to influence the tastemakers of today or a handbag so well recognized that its name precedes its function, the name Jane Birkin will forever be remembered for the woman within the clothes.
Published 25 Jul 2023
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