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The gamine

Impish but innocent, boyish but feminine, the true gamine is more than just a haircut

Matthew Sweet | May/June 2015

SAINTLY JEAN SEBERG AS ST JOAN, 1957
They burnt Joan of Arc (1412-31) for heresy, but her style was also on the charge sheet: the male attire, the close-cut hair. The look still turned heads when Otto Preminger filmed Jean Seberg on her way to the pyre, a shorn, wide-eyed boy-woman. Seberg killed herself in 1979 – though her demons were the FBI, determined to punish political radicalism. Here she stands, the sweetest and brightest of Joans, a decade before anyone knew that J. Edgar Hoover was carrying a torch for her.

MILITANT A VIVANDIERE, 1850
1848: the Year of Revolution and the year of the gamin et gamine: impish Parisian street kids who became the footsoldiers of the June Days, gunning for liberty, like the child waving a pair of flintlocks in the painting by Delacroix. The coming of Napoleon III and the Second Empire should have sent them skittering home – but the figure survived, as the vivandière, the female cook who wore masculine uniform to boil coffee and mutton in the Crimea – and the “little gamin” whom Manet painted, wearing a crimson cap, gorging on cherries, and smiling as if the war had gone the other way.

TALL AUDREY HEPBURN, c1955
Off screen, there was a surprising distance between Audrey Hepburn and the floor. Elfin Audrey, who breakfasted at Tiffany’s and stuck out her elbows as she jived with Fred Astaire, was 5 feet 7 inches tall. The camera, oddly, was blind to it – but not to the boyish fragility of her frame. That was much less mysterious – a product of life during the famine of 1944 in Nazi-occupied Holland. The Hongerwinter, it was called. Its chill never left her bones. Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon National Portrait Gallery, London, July 2nd to Oct 18th

SMALL GIULIETTA MASINA, 1958
Critics called her “the female Chaplin”; her husband, Federico Fellini, called her lo spippolo – “little cute thing”. And she was, compared with the great Aventine Hill of his bulk. Theirs was a radio romance: Fellini heard her throaty laugh on the wireless, sent flowers, and one year later, married her. In 1957 she starred for him as the prostitute-heroine of “Nights of Cabiria”. The story humiliates her, but allows her, in the final scene, to join a street parade and smile through her tears. Masina marched on, too, through a miscarriage and the death of a son, though Fellini’s demise brought her to a halt. He died the day after their golden wedding anniversary; she dallied for five months, then took the exit.

LIBERATED DIANA ROSS, 1970
This record-cover shot of a shorn Diana Ross, newly escaped from the beehive and the Supremes, declares a higher kind of supremacy – the kind that comes when your name is the title of the album. Some stars greeted the beginning of the 1970s with curling tongs, but that Stepfordiana holds no appeal for Miss Ross. Adopting the gamine look has returned her to some imagined Tom Sawyerish childhood, carefree, unconfected, when apples were scrumped, not handed over by the stylist.

VIOLATED MIA FARROW IN “ROSEMARY’S BABY”, 1968
Eighteenth-century Gothic heroines capered through crumbling Italian monasteries, their tresses flying in the Walpurgisnacht air. Catholicism was the villainy they were trying to outrun. In Roman Polanski’s landmark horror picture, Satanism is the bête noire. But how can you flee a terror inside your body? Mia Farrow’s anxious pregnant newlywed is a heroine for the age of My Lai, napalm, and the bloody slayings of Martin Luther King and JFK – a childlike figure, about to be torn by the knowledge of the world’s true awfulness.

PURITANICAL MADONNA, 1986
As her name implies, Madonna’s aesthetic loyalties lie with the baroque; a boudoir baroque of lace and beads, cleavage and crucifixes. The mix suggests a room above a saloon, in a Wild West town, with a Catholic population. This image is from her interregnum period, in the run-up to the release of “True Blue”. It’s May 1986, and she’s shooting the video for “Papa Don’t Preach”, rationalising herself into a Roundhead collection of boyish lines and angles – the trim geometry of leather jacket, Modette fringe and those trousers, creased as sharply as if it were her first day at college. She never graduated, though – just a few months later, the bows and curlicues were restored, and she was a Cavalier once more.

POLITICAL TINA CHOW, 1988
Hepburn’s malnutrition, Seberg’s on- and off-screen martyrdom: it’s hard to read the gamine body without using the pathological gaze. Does it portend the bright androgynous future, or a neurotic retreat into impossible boyhood? Let Tina Chow be our test case. Muse to three generations of photographers – Beaton, Warhol, Herb Ritts – Chow was diagnosed with AIDS a year after Ritts took this photograph. She went bravely and loudly to her grave at the age of 41 –a declining body transfigured into a flesh-and-blood campaign vehicle.

THEATRICAL JUDI DENCH, 2010
The file on Dench goes back to the early 1960s – she has looked sharp and boyish for half a century, the better for us to observe the Munchkinland architecture of her face. But perhaps it also betrays her common ground with the average puckish teenage male. Dame Judi uses her needlepoint skills to fill green rooms and film sets with embroidered swear-words – and once had Harvey Weinstein’s name tattooed on her behind.

FANTASTICAL MAISIE WILLIAMS, 2011
Until “Game of Thrones”, women in sword and sorcery (a genre Freud well understood) were Playboy objects of male fantasy. Then came Arya Stark, a cat-like teen adventurer who is, as Starks go, rather more Freya than Koo. Now galloping across our screens in the person of Bristol-born Maisie Williams, she embodies what young women might want in a world of dragonish fantasy. A thought that belongs to Freud, but would have baffled Tolkien.

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