No matter what your feelings about the French in general — their female icons remain beyond reproach. Too often, we attribute their enduring appeal to that mysterious French je ne sais quoi. But in fact, we know exactly quoi—and so do they.
Embracing their own complexity, they were (and are) comfortable playing with the contradictions of their time. They saw (and see) no reason why they couldn’t be both bewitching and bad-ass, demure and daring, masculine and feminine, innocent and sage, classic and modern, all at once, without skipping a beat.
As a result, they’ve always written their own rules—from the clothes they’ve worn (or refused to wear), to the work they did, to the men (and women) they’ve loved.
In honor of Paris Fashion Week — underway now — we present the following list of favorite French icons; each of them continues to leave us feeling awestruck — and slightly frumpy in comparison — after all this time.
When this glamazon debuted in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman in 1956, it actually felt as though a new species of woman had arrived. Not just a blonde and bodacious species, but one that represented a new era in post-war France. It’s no wonder Simone de Beauvoir described Bardot as a “locomotive of women’s history,” considering she chugged her way through forty-seven films, four husbands, and dozens of lovers from St. Tropez to Brazil, rocking her signature Repettos as she went.
With fifty novels to her name (or to her various noms de plume), Colette is France’s foremost female author and is considered a national treasure. She also happened to have been a hell-raiser who performed riot-causing topless acts at the Moulin Rouge, and felt just as comfortable shacking up with Josephine Baker as she did with any of her three husbands. In addition to possessing the power of the pen, Colette had a distinct sense of style, and insisted—from behind her wild mop of hair—that “the feminine face needs leafage.” Is it any wonder that the fringe lives on today?
At age 67, the grande dame of French glamour keeps getting better. She beguiled us with her innocence in 1964’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, she seduced us in 1967’s Belle de Jour, and today, she continues to enchant us with her refined style and her gravity-defying blonde coif. Timeless elegance of the highest order.
It’s probably not a coincidence that every second girl on the street in Paris looks a little like Françoise Hardy – or tries to. A classic French renaissance woman, this singer-actress-astrologer wrote the book on effortless French style: perfect skin, perpetually windswept bangs, and a perma-pout. Her breezy look defined her generation, and it continues to inspire a certain type of ideal beauty in France.
At the tender age of 28, she’s already a mini-icon; but as the daughter of über-icon Jane Birkin and director Jacques Doillon (and half-sister to Charlotte Gainsbourg), we know she’s destined for greatness. The toothy model and actress is the ultimate French “It” girl, which she demonstrates by appearing totally blasé and often chicly unkempt. In other words: tres mode.
– Tory Hoen
All photographs courtesy of Getty Images