Jane Birkin in 1985. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

British and French actress, model, singer, and definitive “it-girl” of the late ’60s, Jane Birkin, passed away in her Paris home on July 16th at the age of 76. Despite being born in London, Birkin became known for having the chic effortlessness of a French auteur. Pushing past the definition of “muse,” Birkin’s life was defined by her adventurous and nonlinear career.

Jane Birkin was born in 1946 in London to an actress mother and a military father. Her first marriage to composer John Barry was a short-lived one. Together, the two had a daughter, Kate Barry, a successful fashion photographer who passed away in 2013. Birkin raised Kate alongside her children from other partnerships, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon.

Birkin linked the sometimes-polarized worlds of England and France with her signature elegant style, doe-eyed look, and captivating accent which never veered from its English origins. At a time when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and mod fashion rose to critical fame, Birkin inspired a similar bohemian rebellion in the French cultural scene. 

After landing a supporting role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, the director’s ode to Swinging London, Birkin left England in 1968 to pursue a leading role in Pierre Grimblat’s Slogan. On set, Birkin met Serge Gainsbourg, a musician and actor whose career and lifestyle became synonymous with the wild and charged spirit of the Swinging Sixties. 

The romantic partnership between the two would become career-defining for Birkin. Gainsbourg and Birkin’s 12-year relationship kept her permanently in France just as the youth-driven cultural revolution was beginning in England.

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in 1976, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Birkin became a crucial asset to Gainsbourg’s career. Their number-one UK single “Je t’aime … moi non plus” became a sexually charged hit that was not allowed to be played on French radio stations before 11 pm. A myriad of other musical collaborations including the album, Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, were born from the iconic partnership. 

She continued her musical career past her relationship with Gainsbourg, breaking out of her reputation as his confidante. Recording more than 20 albums in her lifetime, Birkin developed a breathy and uniquely francophile sound. Her last album, Oh! Pardon tu dormais… was released in 2020. Birkin continued performing late into her life, although her 2021 and 2022 tours were cut short due to ill health. 

Birkin left her mark on French cinema by starring in cult thrillers like La Piscine, La moutarde me monte au nez!, La course à l’échalote, Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime moi non plus, and blockbuster hits like Death on the Nile. Birkin’s filmography established her as a varied actor, capable of breaking out of her traditional persona and style to take on more intensive roles. 

A few years later, Birkin starred in the 1984 film La Pirate, directed by her later partner, filmmaker Jacques Doillon. Her role as Alma, a complex character stuck between two lovers, her husband and another woman, earned her a nomination at the César Awards in 1985. 

Hermès Ostrich Birkin bag. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Beyond her musical and acting careers, Birkin left her mark on the fashion world by lending her name to the iconic “Birkin bag,” designed by Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas. On a 1983 flight to London, Birkin spilled the contents of her bag, expressing to Dumas that there was a kind of handbag she always needed but could never find. From there, Dumas sketched out a bag with a roomy interior and minimalist style that was far more secure than Birkin’s equally iconic wicker basket bag that she often traveled with. The Birkin bag soared in popularity by the turn of the century and spawned many iconic pop culture moments, such as Samantha’s exclamation in Sex and the City, “It’s not a bag — it’s a Birkin!” 

Birkin was also an acclaimed activist, campaigning for Amnesty International, Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, and the fight against AIDS. In 2022, she and her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, even joined other musicians and actors by chopping off their hair for the “HairForFreedom” campaign in support of protestors in Iran. 

Constantly bridging the gap between effortlessness and intensity, Birkin’s sprawling career earned her a posthumous legacy of complexity, rebellion, and artistic enterprise. French president Emmanuel Macron’s tribute to her as a “French icon” perfectly encapsulates Birkin, whose liveliness and style transcended the barriers of time. 

Article by Zoe Hussain for The Untitled Magazine.

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