Girls will be boys

Jeanne Moreau immortalised the “garçonne” look in the 1962 film “Jules et Jim”. CINEDIS

Of all the freedoms women have negotiated over the century or so since universal suffrage, the right to dress as we like is one of the most central. And of all the styles women have adopted since, dressing à la garçonne is at once one of the most serviceable and the most enduring in appeal.

We all know this look, whether we know its name or not: it means to dress like a tomboy. On stage, from Shakespeare’s Portia to Vesta Tilley, star of the Edwardian music-hall, women have impersonated beardless boys for centuries – out of a lack of men to play the parts, a plot device, or simply because it is a crowd-pleaser: for what could be more charming and indeed intriguing than a principal boy?

The tomboy look took a little longer to gain traction in everyday life, for reasons legal as well as cultural. In France an anti-revolutionary law of 1799 banning the wearing of trousers by women was only officially repealed in 2013, although it was amended in 1899 to allow women “holding the handlebars of a bicycle or the reins of a horse” the right to don le pantalon. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was not long after this amendment that the garçonne look became popular. More surprisingly, it did not involve trousers for some time, just looser frocks and bobbed hair: the first and most prominent garçonne was in fact the 1920s American film actress, Louise Brooks.

Louise Brooks

From the outset the garçonne and her lifestyle were considered subversive, principally because she advocated sexual liberation, if not straightfoward lesbianism. She had her own nightspots and clubs, such as Le Monocle in Paris, where women sported three -piece suits and kiss-curls. Victor Margueritte’s 1922 novel La Garçonne caused a stir for its liberated bachelor-girl heroine: the following year the first of four film adaptations was heavily censored and eventually banned in France. In 1930 a German lesbian magazine changed its name from Frauenliebe to Garçonne in a futile attempt to avoid censure as Germany moved towards repression and fascism; it was closed down in 1932.

Vesta Tilley

Yet this look turned out to be the fashion statement that fascism, war and prejudice could not keep down. Because once you’ve registered garçonne style, you see it everywhere. I have half a dozen girlfriends who wouldn’t wear a skirt if their lives depended on it; on the riva degli Schiavoni I once followed a Japanese girl in a loose rollneck, wide-cropped trousers and Victorian lace-up boots for half a mile across Venice, mesmerised by her style. Actresses such as Emma Corrin are not only seen on the street in blazers and men’s jeans but also appear on the red carpet with their hands jammed in the pockets of their shorts, for all the world like beautiful boy scouts escaped from a jamboree.

The “garçonne” and her lifestyle were subversive because she advocated sexual liberation

How did a style so rooted in theatricality and sexual subversiveness become mainstream? The answer lies partly in historical upheaval: World War II drew many more women into the workplace to fill traditional male roles – and the uniform came too. Pretty poster girl Rosie the Riveter with her boilersuit and bandana was the tip of the iceberg; when the war was over the beatnik backlash of the ’50s and ’60s had women – inspired by Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and that ur-gamine Jean Seberg in Breathless – in jeans and sailor caps, leggings and polo-necks, releasing their inner Gavroche.

Rosie the Riveter

Such momentum would not have been sustained had not tomboy style enjoyed several unbeatable advantages, most particularly in the workplace. It’s fetching but discreet – we are not, after all, talking uber-sexy, Helmut Newton-style, satin-lapelled masculin-feminin but a look that’s comfortable and extremely practical. Not for nothing have female photographers from Lee Miller to the Guardian’s Sarah Lee favoured the garçonne uniform, cross-bodied with a camera strap. This, then, is a look you can work in, play in and – if the job requires it – fly under the radar in. La garçonne is a win-win.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, March 2024, Style Maven

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