The Legacy of Jane Birkin: From Style to The Silver Screen

The life and times of Jane Birkin (1946 – 2023), a London-born legend who won over the French, and then the world.

Jul 20, 2023 | By Max Sin
Jane Birkin, Actress and Model, models for The Sun Women’s Page, poses for pictures in a Park, London, Sunday 20th December 1964. (Photo by Barham/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Jane Birkin in a spread for The Sun Women’s Page taken in London, 20 December 1964. Photo: Barham/ Mirrorpix via Getty Images

15 July 2023 Beloved Anglo-Franco actress, singer and model, Jane Birkin, has passed peacefully in her Paris home at age 76.

The news comes just two months after Birkin cancelled a string of concerts citing health concerns and two years since she suffered a stroke.

PARIS, FRANCE – NOVEMBER 21: Singer Jane Birkin attends the ‘Le Brio’ Premiere at Cinema Gaumont Capucine on November 21, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)
Jane Birkin attends the Le Brio premiere at Cinema Gaumont Capucine in Paris, 21 November 2017. Photo: Marc Piasecki via Getty Images

Few people have wholly embodied the term “muse” like Jane Birkin. A quintessential style icon of the 60s all through the 70s, Birkin’s magnetic visage, prolific acting career and landmark impact on French music exceedingly qualifies her as one of the biggest “it-girl”s to emerge from the previous century. Snapshots of Birkin throughout her life continue to hold gravitas even today, with her music and films serving as inspirations for each new generation of budding artists around the world. Ahead, we trace the brave and bold chapters of Birkin’s life, looking back at her most iconic looks and culture-shaping moments.

FRANCE – AUGUST 28: Premiere : “Slogan” by Pierre Grimblat in Paris, France on August 28, 1969-(16555) Serge Gainsourg, Jane Birkin and Pierre Grimblat. (Photo by Yves LE ROUX/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Jane Birkin with Serge Gainsourg and Pierre Grimblat at the premiere of Slogan in Paris, 28 August 1969. Photo: Yves le Roux/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Skyrocketing into Fame and Romance

Born in 1946 to an actor mother and naval officer father, Birkin grew up in London where she married her first husband, music composer, John Barry, at just 17 years old. The union would last three years and birth to the couple their first and only daughter, Kate.

18-year-old Jane Birkin, then starring as the leading woman in Passion Flower Hotel, marries in secret at the Chelsea Registry Office, London to a then 30-year-old John Barry, 16 October 1965. Photo by King/ Sunday Mirror/ Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Birkin broke into the film industry 1966 in with her breakout film, Blow Up, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, playing the role of a beautiful ingenue which catapulted her to fame. Birkin hopped on the momentum of her overnight stardom to move across the channel in the following year, soon starring in the romantic comedy, Slogan, alongside French singer-songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg. Little did she realise, Gainsbourg (who was 18 years her senior) would soon become one of the greatest loves of her life.

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Photo: Universal Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Picture taken on October 1969 shows French singer Serge Gainsbourg and English singer and actress Jane Birkin in Paris. AFP PHOTO RALPH GATTI (Photo credit should read RALPH GATTI/AFP via Getty Images)
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Paris, October 1969. Photo: Alph Gatti/ AFP via Getty Images

Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus

The French famously welcomed Birkin as their own for her effortless style and devil-may-care attitude to norms, a more than perfect fit for Parisian life. Gainsbourg and Birkin would go on to enjoy their hedonistic reign as France’s most famous couple for the next 13 years, though never officially married. In February 1969, they released the iconic “Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus (I Love You… Me Neither)”. The song’s racy, provocative lyrics were condemned by the Vatican and banned in several countries then.

Video: Youtube @mtorringa
FRANCE – AUGUST 01: Archives of Jane Birkin in Paris, France in August, 1991. (Photo by Laurent MAOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Jane Birkin in Paris, August 1991. Photo by Laurent Maous/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“He and I became the most famous of couples in that strange way because of Je t’aime and… he went on being my friend until the day he died. Who could ask for more?”, professed Birkin in a statement from 2006. “So, Paris became my home. I’ve been adopted here. They like my accent.”

In 1971, the couple welcomed Birkin’s second daughter to the world, Charlotte.

Jane Birkin and her daughter, Charlotte, at home in Paris. Photo by Alain Dejean/ Sygma/ Getty Images
Jane Birkin and her daughter, Charlotte, at home in Paris. Photo by Alain Dejean/ Sygma via Getty Images
British actress and singer Jane Birkin with her daughters Kate Barry (she had with composer John Barry) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (she had with French singer and songwriter Serge Gainsbourg) in their home in Paris. (Photo by Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty Images)
Jane Birkin with her daughters, Kate Barry and Charlotte Gainsbourg, in their home in Paris. Photo by Alain Dejean/ Sygma via Getty Images

Influence on French Cinema

Birkin starred in over 70 films across her entire career: Death On The Nile, Evil Under The SunCannabis, WonderwallThe Pirate; the list goes on. Iconic films like 1969’s La Piscine have since become historic hall marks of French cinema, where Birkin plays teenage femme fatale, Penelope, who seduces a writer by a swimming pool along the Côte d’Azur. The role was later played again in a remake by Dakota Johnson in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash.

Alain Delon as Jean Paul and Jane Birkin as Penelope on set during the filming of La Piscine. Photo: Getty Images
Jane Birkin en 1974 à Cannes, France. (Photo by Michel GINFRAY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Jane Birkin in Cannes, 1974. Photo: Michel Ginfray/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Birkin and Gainsbourg’s relationship had its fair share of ups and downs — reportedly, Birkin once launched herself into the River Seine after throwing a custard pie in Gainsbourg’s face. The relationship in 1980.

Birkin had a third daughter, Lou, with French film director, Jacques Doillon. Her eldest, Kate, a fashion photographer, passed in 2013 after a tragic fall from a balcony in Paris. The remaining Birkin girls went on to have inspired careers in music, modelling and acting.

Jane Birkin et sa fille Charlotte Gainsbourg avec son César au Fouquet’s le 20 février 2000 à Paris, France. (Photo by Pool ARNAL/CHARRIAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Jane Birkin proudly standing next to Charlotte Gainsbourg holding her award for Best Supporting Actress at the 25th César Awards, Paris. 20 February 2000. Photo: Pool Arnal/ Charriau/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Jane Birkin at the 1992 Victoires De La Musique Awards. Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff via Getty Images
Jane Birkin at the 1992 Victoires De La Musique Awards. Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff via Getty Images

“Jane Birkin was a French icon. A complete artist, her voice was as gentle as her commitments were ardent,” tweeted French president, Emmanuel Macron. “She bequeaths to us a legacy of songs and images that will never leave us.”

“She embodied freedom, because she sang the most beautiful words of our language.”

English actress and singer Jane Birkin, UK, November 1974. (Photo by R. Viner/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Jane Birkin, November 1974. Photo: R. Viner/ Express/ Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Beyond cinema, Birkin’s legacy has also irrevocably changed luxury fashion as well at the House of Hermès. The famous Birkin bag launched in 1984 after Birkin reportedly met Hermés chief executive, Jean-Louis Dumas, on a flight from Paris to London where she discussed the need for an elegant bag to house all of her needs as a mother.

This article was adapted from an original, first seen on Grazia International.

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