Jane Birkin – the woman who embodied the “French Girl” style 

Long before Hermès made the famous bag that bears her name, the English-French actress and singer influenced changing ideas on fashion and femininity. 

“Serge was a great man. I was just pretty,” Jane Birkin once describes herself and her relationship with her partner, french musician Serge Gainsbourg. The statement was far from true in the fashion world where her decades-long career influenced many designers and fashion-forward people alike.  The influence of Jane Birkin, who died on Sunday at the age of 76, can still be seen on runways today. The latest at Valentino’s haute couture show, featuring Kaia Gerber in a quintessential “French girl” look, with a white button-up shirt, tucked into a pair of overalls. 


American designer Anna Sui described her as having a very different sense of style. “She set a style example for a generation of women,” the designer told The New York Times. She introduced something new to our fashion vocabulary, with her shrunken t-shirts, cutoff jeans and espadrilles and always carrying her infamous wicker basket. 

Jane started off strong in the 1960s, showing up at parties as designer Paco Rabanne’s muse. She was a fan of his minidresses and unlike most celebrities today, often styled herself. She would add her personal touch, elevating the simplest of outfits. In the 70s she introduced the world to her love of wicker handbags, always carrying one in hand. When her music career took off in the 90s and 80s, she elevated her style once again, from her previous sweet babydoll beauty to more androgynous fashion. She introduced leather jackets and men’s blazers to her closet and used her fashion to propel herself into a new era.  


The 80s introduced us to maybe one of her most well-known influences. On a plane, Birkin ended up sitting next to the chief executive at Hermès Jean-Louise Dumas. The singer could allegedly not fit all her items in her overhead compartment and told Dumas how she wished she could find a bag big enough to hold all her favourite things. “I would love to have been a sort of neat person and wear a Kelly,” Jane Birkin once explained, referring to the Hermès bag named after film star Grace Kelly. This inspired Dumas to create the Birkin, a bigger, satchel-style bag. The bag was based on an earlier design from 1900, the Haut à Courroies, created by Hermès. The Birkin bag is today one of the most recognizable bags and a status of status and wealth, with a price tag of over 10 000 dollars. The bag became truly iconic in 2001 when it appeared on the hit show Sex and the City and can now be seen carried by celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Cardi B and Jennifer Lopez. 

Mrs Birkin herself, on the other hand, wore a simple leather model and would toss the bag around like it was nothing. She was known for decorating hers with ribbons and stickers for humanitarian causes, adding her simple, yet effective personal touch. This bag trend resurfaced again this year on social media. TikTok users would decorate their handbags in the “Jane Birkin-way” using stickers, pins, ribbon and other things to express their personal style. 


Although Hermès can thank Jane Birkin for the creation of one of the brand’s most popular items, the singer was cautious about being associated with one brand. In 2015 she asked Hermès to remove her name from the crocodile style of the bag when PETA released a video exposing unethical farming practices at a supplier of exotic leathers to the brand. She later dropped the request after Hermès launched an investigation confirming it was an isolated situation. Still, Jane Birkin wasn’t afraid of sticking up for her beliefs. She received five bags from Hermès which she auctioned off in support of good causes as well as working with the luxury brand to donate to charities. She told WWD in 2011, “I got Hermès to fork out for my charities once I saw the fortune they were making. A certain amount of money every year goes straight to my charity and it will continue to after my death.” After her passing Hermès published a statement thanking Birkin for her collaboration and inspiration. “We have lost a close friend and a longtime companion. With a shared sensitivity, we grew to know each other, we discovered and appreciated the extent to which Jane Birkin’s soft elegance revealed an artist in her own right, committed, open-minded, with a natural curiosity of the world and others. We salute Jane Birkin’s talent, and above all her great humanity as we join her family in mourning.” 


With her changing personal style, going from transparent minidresses to more androgynous utilitarian fashion, Jane Birkin told the story of her own life as an artist, an icon of 20th-century sexual liberation, a wife and mother. She showed us all how to personalise our own closets and make even the simplest outfits special. 


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