Before the Bag: Who was Jane Birkin?  | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Jane Birkin in a scene for Roger Vadim’s Don Juan.
Jane Birkin in a scene for Roger Vadim’s Don Juan.

Get to know the life of the actress who inspired the Hermés Birkin Handbag.



A British-born actress and singer, Jane Birkin grew up in Chelsea as the daughter of Royal Navy lieutenant and World War II spy, David Birkin, and actress Judy Campbell. When she was younger, she would describe herself “as a shy English girl,” largely credited with low self-esteem stemming from her boyish physique. During her time in boarding school, Birkin suffered from bullying and was called “half-boy, half-girl” in reference to her small chest. Despite what she went through as a young girl, in time Birkin broke out of her shell to become a pivotal figure in the world of French fashion. 

Jane Birkin in white clothes
Jane Birkin on vacation in France the 1970s

Becoming the French “It Girl”

Birkin’s career on the silver screen began in England, after appearing in films such as The Knack…. And How to Get It (1965) and Blowup (1966). 

In 1965, Birkin married British composer and conductor John Barry. The two met in the musical adaptation of Rosalind Erskine’s novel The Passion Flower Hotel in 1965, where Birkin was a cast member and Barry was the composer. They got married just after a year of dating when she was 18. Barry, 13 years her senior, was 31 years old. Together, they had a daughter Kate Barry who was to become a successful photographer later in life. In 1968, the pair split as Birkin felt the desire to start a career in France. She is quoted as saying she felt as though there was much more left to discover in the world, and that she and Barry were at different stages of their lives. Following her divorce from her first husband John Barry, Jane Birkin picked up and move to France, in search of a new beginning.

Birkin lived a wild lifestyle where she would go out at night, come home before her daughter Kate’s school started, and then sleep in the daytime. Her life became the start of a new era for pop culture—one that was more liberated. She broke the hyper-feminine fashion norm set for women at that time, paving the way for the French girl chic aesthetic we know today. Her personal style inspired fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy to produce timeless pieces, setting her up to be a fashion icon.

Her Iconic 1960s Affair

After the separation from John Barry, Jane Birkin met Serge Gainsbourg on the set of “Slogan”, a film by Pierre Grimblat in 1968. The two quickly developed a poet-muse relationship which eventually took the French entertainment industry by storm. Their single “Je T’aime…moi non plus” was highly criticized for its sexually explicit lyrics that were accompanied by the moans and gasps of Birkin in the background. The song was highly controversial and was even condemned by the Vatican, then banned from countries such as Spain, Sweden, and Brazil. 

Her well-known for her love affair with the greatest French songwriter of the 1960s and 1970 led them to become one of the most popular (and controversial) couples of the decade, alongside the likes of June Carter and Johnny Cash, or JFK and Jackie. 

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg

However, Birkin eventually split with Gainsbourg after 12 years of marriage, due to his increasing alcoholism and violence. Despite their separation, the two maintained a genuine friendship. Birkin’s family adored him, even commenting that Birkin’s brother Andres, had also fallen in love with Gainsbourg. When Birkin had her 3rd daughter with her next partner Jacques Doillon, Serge was made the godfather—highlighting the more modern approach the French had to families. 

Jane Birkin and her English Bulldog, Dora
Jane Birkin and her English Bulldog, Dora


The Legacy of Jane Birkin

Before the bag, Birkin met Hermes chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas. As she was attempting to fit her straw basket bag in the overhead compartment, the contents suddenly spilled onto the airplane floor. Seated next to her, CEO Dumas teased that she should have bought a bag that had pockets. Birkin jokingly replied she would only do so if Hermes made such a bag. On that same flight, Dumas began to sketch what would become one of their most popular and reputable designs— the Birkin bag—named after that fateful encounter on-flight.

Jane Birkin passed last July 16, 2023, at the age of 76. She left an impact on music and film, and especially in French cinema. However, fashion may be her biggest legacy of all, as she showed the world that style never has to scream for it to be chic. The laid-back yet put-together look is rooted in Jane Birkin’s personal style, and is still seen prominently in today’s fashion landscape. Moreover, by being the inspiration behind the Hermés Birkin bag, Birkin paved the way for women’s apparel and accessories to be practical just as it is stylish, proving that women can have both. 

From starting a family at a young age all the while being in the cut-throat entertainment industry, Jane Birkin rose to be one of the most prolific and sought-after celebrities, carrying a certain je nais se quois about her that is still emulated by generations today. 

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