Before the words “style icon” were used to describe every celebrity under the sun, there was Jane Birkin. The London-born actress and singer got her start in the 1960s, appearing in British films like Kaleidoscope and Wonderwall. By the end of the decade, she had met her longtime partner (both creatively and personally), Serge Gainsbourg, and made France her new home. But her effortless approach to fashion would ultimately eclipse her other professional achievements, as Birkin helped to set the trends of the ‘60s and ‘70s while defining what it means to be a French “It girl” for decades to come.
Her signature style—which often included white t-shirts, patchwork denim and minidresses that were almost always accessorized with Birkin’s preferred wicker basket bag and trademark wispy fringe—fused casual pieces with a touch of sex appeal. But leave it to Birkin to sum it up best: “My look is a cocktail,” she once said. “I’m not as nicely turned out as the French, but I don’t care like the English.”
Of course, she also lent her name to the iconic Hèrmes Birkin bag. The exclusive luxury item, which is known to come with an equally discriminative price tag (in 2017, a diamond-encrusted Birkin sold for a then-record-breaking $380,000 at a Christie’s auction) was actually created by accident. While accounts of the legendary tale vary, the Birkin was born in 1984, after the style icon was seated on a flight next to Jean-Louis Dumas, then the CEO of Hèrmes. After Birkin’s carryall fell over and all her belongings spilled out onto the floor of the plane, she and Dumas began talking, and the actress opined on the appeal of a bag that was bigger than the Hèrmes Kelly, but smaller than a suitcase—and with plenty of pockets. Dumas took inspiration from the meeting, and the rest is history.
In addition to serving as style inspo on Instagram and TikTok in more recent years, Birkin, who passed away at the age of 76 in July 2023, has long played muse to numerous designers, even starring in a campaign for Yves Saint Laurent in 2016. Though synonymous with style, Birkin’s legacy also includes a decades-long commitment to humanitarian and activism efforts. Ranging from visiting refugee camps in Myanmar as a pro-democracy activist to campaigning for abortion rights, at times, Birkin’s advocacy work and status as style icon have intersected. She reportedly donated the royalties she earned from Hermès to charities each year.
1965, Wedding to John Barry
At age 18, Birkin married British composer John Barry at the Chelsea Registry Office in London. For the secret ceremony, the actress wore a white crochet mini dress, leaving her shoulder-length hair (and bangs) styled straight.
1968, with Serge Gainsbourg in Paris
While out in France in the late ‘60s, Birkin wore a formal dress that would be just as appropriate and stylish on a red carpet today. The floor-length design included cut-out detailing and an embellished top, which Birkin accessorized with a matching beaded bag.
1969, with Serge Gainsbourg at “Four Time”
On the set of a television show, Birkin paired a knitted minidress with ballet flats and dainty necklaces.
1969, Artists Union Gala
In one of her most famous looks, Birkin wore a floor-length crochet dress—backwards—to attend a gala in Cannes. The white dress featured a plunging neckline that ran past her navel, and Birkin added a brooch at the center to slightly fasten the frock, while perfectly complementing the boho vibes.
1969, ‘Slogan’ Premiere
Before the naked dress of today existed, there was this completely sheer mini that Birkin wore for the premiere of her 1969 film Slogan, on the set of which she had met and begun a relationship with French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. “I didn’t realize it was so transparent,” she later told Vogue France. “This is the flash effect of the photographers’ camera. If I had known, I would not [have] put knickers on.” Birkin styled the sheer design simply, with a pair of Mary Janes, a few necklaces and her wicker basket bag, which was a staple for both casual shopping trips and at glamorous red carpet events.
1970, in Cannes
Birkin gave her go-to t-shirt and jeans an appropriately summery spin while in Cannes, with a white lace crop top and belted white denim, which she accessorized with her basket bag and a key necklace that matched Gainsbourg’s.
1970, with Serge Gainsbourg & Serge Lama
Birkin didn’t wear bright colors often, so when she did—as is the case with this royal blue sequin number—it’s worth taking note.
1971, Heathrow Airport
A lesson in airport style: Birkin layered sheer stockings and black shorts with a striped turtleneck sweater and a black peacoat, along with dainty patent Mary Jane heels
1972, with Serge Gainsbourg
Birkin wore this barely-there metallic mini from Spanish designer Paco Rabanne while out dancing with Gainsbourg. To make the futuristic designer’s dresses even shorter, Birkin told Vogue France that she would have “lines removed to make it look like a long shirt.”
1972, ‘The Godfather’ Premiere
Birkin liked this black feather-trimmed dress so much, she wore the strapless number twice: at the Paris premiere for The Godfather in 1972 and at a gala in Cannes.
This white t-shirt and patchwork denim combo is a prime example of Birkin’s style uniform, which also included heeled sandals and a woven basket purse.
1974, Cannes Film Festival
For the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, Birkin chose a pale pink velvet dress with a thigh-high slit. Making the look her own, Birkin accessorized the asymmetrical design with pearls worn at the waist, silver heels and her trusty basket bag (made red carpet-ready with the addition of a scarf wrapped around the handle).
1986, a Television Show in France
Birkin went full-on glam while performing on a television show in France in the ‘80s, sporting an asymmetrical sequin dress with her hair chopped to a shorter shoulder length.
1994, in London
A fur-trimmed coat elevated Birkin’s otherwise casual attire, which included an oversized white shirt, black pants and a worn-in pair of white sneakers.
1999, Hèrmes Spring 2000 Ready-to-Wear Fashion Show
In 1999, Birkin walked the runway in an all-white ensemble for the Hèrmes spring 2000 collection, designed by then-creative director Martin Margiela.
2002, Cannes Film Festival
Back at the Cannes Film Festival, Birkin went for a decidedly bolder look with a floor-length, bright red slip dress.
2011, in Japan
In 2011, Birkin arrived at Narita International Airport in an oversized sweater and jeans ahead of a benefit concert that she organized to aid Japan’s earthquake and tsunami relief fund. Carrying one of her eponymous bags, the singer shared that she also sold one of her Birkin bags for $163,000 to benefit the Japanese Red Cross.
2016, Paris Fashion Week
Birkin and her daughters, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, stole the show at the presentation for Yves Saint Laurent’s spring 2017 collection. The Paris Fashion week show took place in the fall of 2016, and earlier that year, Birkin starred in a campaign for the fashion house’s classic Le Smoking jacket (first introduced by Yves Saint Laurent himself in 1966).
2017, in France
Dressed in a black suit with a cream silk button-down, Birkin performed songs by Gainsbourg alongside France’s Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio in 2017.
2021, Cannes Film Festival
In one of her later public appearances, Birkin attended the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of a documentary about her life, Jane By Charlotte, which was directed by her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Naturally, Birkin walked the red carpet with her daughter, and the duo both opted for black suits.