Facebook recently offered the suggestion that Jane Birkin was among the People I Might Know, and thought I might be in the mood to write her a message. It’s a tempting idea, because who wouldn’t want to be friends with Jane Birkin, but I can’t see us becoming buddies even in this most remote way. I do “know” her, in the sense of being familiar with her recorded and cinematic work, and if I’m being completely candid, I see her every single day: there is a large poster signed by the British photographer David Bailey in the front room of my apartment, and the centerpiece of the poster — from an exhibit of his pictures — is the very famous topless black and white shot (the one uploaded above) of Ms. Birkin, her hair shooting out in all directions, her eyes wide. It’s a stunning photo that sums up so much about Bailey’s eye for the moment and Birkin’s unblinking, casual sexuality. So, yes, she’s a person I think I know in a way. She is also, more confessional material here, one of the first two women (well, she was more of a girl then) I ever saw completely unclothed on a movie screen, in the famous purple-paper scene with David Hemmings and Gillian Hills in Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
But I sort of don’t know exactly why or how Jane Birkin became such a Figure of Reknown. It wasn’t her movies (not many people saw Wonderwall), or the music she made with Serge Gainsbourg (except for “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus,” a musical scandale). It feels as though a generation simply decided she was ultra, and so she became so, separate from her considerable artistic achievements. The first time a woman mentioned something called a Birkin Bag to me, I had no idea what she was talking about, and I couldn’t imagine that it had any connection to Jane. Why would it? A handbag? I thought maybe it was designed by someone named Birkin, but no, she was in some way its inspiration.
And then I was flipping through a newish issue of Vanity Fair, and there was a page on stuff that Taylor Swift likes, and she lists Jane Birkin as one of her four Fashion Icons, along with Francoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn. Those four women are inspiring on any number of levels, so there’s more evidence of Taylor’s keen instincts, but I’m still sort of hazy on how Birkin — and to some extent Hardy — officially became so iconic, when their impact on our culture at the time they were most creatively active was so marginal. You look at these women, mostly in still photos (you still don’t hear much about Birkin or Hardy’s music, not that it isn’t worth discussing), and they couldn’t exist outside of the 1960’s — their pictures pop in a tres Pop way — but it’s not exactly a Mod thing, or a Hippie thing, and in Birkin’s case, it’s not only about clothes, because often she isn’t wearing any: she’s a Fashion Icon when naked.
You could say, I suppose, that what we retain about Jane Birkin and Francoise Hardy was staged, that Gainsbourg helped create Birkin, that without the Hardy photographs by Jean-Marie Perier (lovingly collected in the book Francoise), who shot for the French magazine Salut les Copains, she would be simply another ‘60s ye-ye girl (albeit one who was desired by most of rock royalty from Jagger to Dylan). And even that we see Bardot through the eyes of director Roger Vadim. You could say all that, and it would make creative sense, but it wouldn’t explain what happened when the cameras were turned on these particular women, how vivid and striking they are. That’s why young women post picture after picture of Birkin, Hardy and Bardot on Tumblr, devote websites to them, stylistically emulate them, why Wes Anderson made Francoise a key off-screen presence in Moonrise Kingdom, and why however Taylor Swift discovered these Icons, they made an impression on her. I thought my feelings about Jane Birkin and Francoise Hardy were about my past, the girl rolling around in Blow-Up, purring songs in French, the chanteuse on the covers of Vogue EP’s purchased in hip record shops. Facebook guessed, somehow, that I knew Jane Birkin and would want to connect to her even now, and for a moment, I nearly clicked to send her a note.