In honor of Bastille Day, we are toasting a top French export: style icons. For centuries, Gallic gals — with a mix of natural beauty, soignée taste, and plenty of je ne sais quoi — have left their fashionable mark on the world. And, even though contemporary guidebooks tout the secret to this Franco-sophistication, you can’t beat learning from France’s own iconic darlings. Here’s a look at eight style pioneers with plenty of personal panache.
Juliette Récamier, 1777–1849
Known for her raven hair and striking beauty, socialite Juliette Récamier captured the eyes of countless admirers and artists who visited her early 19th-century salon. People gaze at her elegance today in the Louvre, where Jacques-Louis David’s 1800 painting “Portrait of Madame Récamier” depicts Juliette reclining on a favorite furniture piece of hers: a backless, sloping sofa. This style of sofa became so associated with her that it now bears her name “recamier.”
Cleo de Merode, 1875-1966
Nicknamed “the beauty of the belle epoque,” Cleo was a famed ballet dancer, but it was her tiny waist and fashionable hairstyle — seen on postcards and playing cards — that made Cleo the envy and emulation of Parisian women. Her dramatic presence also mesmerized countless artists (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted her; Alexandre Falguiere sculpted “The Dancer” after her physique), and both King Léopold II and Gustav Klimt were struck with cupid’s arrow.
Photo: Via TopInAmbours
Coco Chanel, 1883-1971
It's hard to stress the revolutionary impact Coco Chanel had on fashion. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, Coco broke free of her humble beginnings to liberate women’s clothing from the corseted and restrictive styles of Cleo de Merode’s time. In its place, Coco popularized a completely modern, unhindered style of dress that emphasized elegance, luxury, and simplicity. Or, as the master designer herself succinctly put it: “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.”
Photo: Pierluigi Praturlon/Rex USA
Brigitte Bardot, 1934
Bardot’s style legacy can be summed up with the three Bs: the bikini, the beehive, and the Bardot neckline. In her ‘50s-’60s heyday, Bardot showed the world the glamorous world of sunny Saint-Tropez, as she poised in revealing bathing suits with a messed-up hairdo. She also popularized the scoop neck and fueled an insatiable desire for gingham. In 1959, she even wore a pink gingham frock to her nuptials.
Photo: Moviestore Collection/Rex USA
Catherine Deneuve, 1943
Her film career spans decades, while her blond bouffant and playfully chic wardrobe are her fashion signature. But despite this high-profile, Catherine Deneuve still maintains an air of mystery. Perhaps this is what drew Yves Saint Laurant to her. He dressed her in Belle du Jour, where she played a bourgeois housewife who turns tricks during the afternoons. The outfits were a blend of sexy sophistication — a look YSL perfected in his future collections.
Photo: Via Chanel
Carine Roitfeld, 1954
Hard to believe this lady is a grandma! The former EIC of French Vogue — and longtime muse to Tom Ford — ushered in an extreme, sexy style that Roitfeld herself dubbed, “porno chic.” These totally audacious, NSFW images not only increased the magazine’s circ numbers during a recession but landed Carine in the style hall of fame as someone always willing to push the envelope.
Photo: BIlly Farrell/BFAnyc.com
Christine Lagarde, 1956
Recognized for her elegant outfits, statement scarves, coiffed silver hairdo, and glowing tan, Christine
Lagarde has made a name for herself in finance and fashion circles. In 2011, she became the 11th managing director for the International Monetary Fund — and their first woman MD — while also landing on Vanity Fair’s International Best Dressed List and in Vogue’s September issue, in Chanel couture, natch.
Photo: Isopix/Rex/Rex USA
Charlotte Gainsbourg, 1971
It would almost be impossible for actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg to not be chic — after all, her mother is Jane Birkin (of Birkin bag and other fashion fames), and her father is singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. Add to this iconic pedigree a gamine physique and a decidedly not-girly wardrobe and it's no wonder designer Nicolas Ghesquière lists her unconventional beauty as an inspiration for Balenciaga.
Photo: Via Balenciaga