Since her first French television appearance in 1962 (in a green oversize V-neck sweater, worn rakishly backward), the singer, actress, and erstwhile yé-yé ambassadress Françoise Hardy has enthralled audiences and fans with her sound and style. Her signature curtain of hair teasing glimpses of gray-saucer eyes and cheekbones seemingly chiseled from Haussmann stone were as striking and vulnerable as the plaintive lyrics in her hits “Tous les garçons et les lles” (“All the Boys and Girls”) and “Comment te dire adieu” (It Hurts to Say Goodbye). But it takes more than Euclidean bone structure and catchy singles to become the symbol of an era to such beatific heights in the world of fashion and music. So what exactly is the essence of Hardy’s allure, and why does it still beguile us today?
Hardy may keep the press and fans at arm’s length, but the images and clips of her yé-yé and Grand Prix days are still endless fodder for fashion designers 50-plus years later.
Some misguidedly frame Hardy’s cultural capital in terms of the famous men she encountered. Bob Dylan had a faraway crush and wrote her unsolicited poetry; Mick Jagger called her the ideal woman; Serge Gainsbourg wrote songs for her; and Richard Avedon captured her leaping across the pages of Vogue . But while these subplots prop up the myth of Hardy as a nouvelle vague goddess, they obscure the poignancy of her own self-determined appearance on the scene. Besides, she said of Dylan: “…he wasn’t a very attractive man, and didn’t seem well in himself.”
Her miraculous arrival in ’62 was no haute bohemian fairy tale. Françoise Madeleine Hardy was born during an air raid in Nazi-occupied Paris in the winter of 1944, one of two illegitimate daughters to her single, working-class mother and wealthier merchant father. These circumstances, while less connected to her later life as a bellwether of style and pop music, are key to understanding her entrance onto the world stage as a “hardworking teenybopper” at age 16 in the early ’60s. In The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, Hardy’s sardonically titled memoir out in English translation this spring, she explains that the tension between living on the fringes of the petit bourgeois while attending an elite convent school with more well-to-do girls (she would hide in the chapel during recess to “avoid the insurmountable ordeal of dodgeball”) left her chronically self-doubting and obedient to authority. Add to that a cruel—and arguably blind—live-in grandmother who constantly disparaged her “uncurvy” looks, Hardy fell victim to that most ironic disposition common among vaunted beauties: a fatal insecurity about her appearance.
Amid this less than rosy backdrop, her father gave her a guitar as a graduation gift (she graduated secondary school two years early at 16 and was accepted both into the prestigious Sciences Po Paris and the Sorbonne). She began composing songs and answered an ad to audition for a label. After one year of university, Hardy landed a record deal at the auspiciously titled Vogue label and by the next year had sold a million copies of her debut single, “Tous les garçons…”
In Hardy’s work and style, there’s always been the feeling that she could take it or leave it: the fame, the fashion, the photographers, the jet-set grind. It’s been a crucial, if ironic, component to her allure.
Hardy’s look and pose in those early years was self-conscious yet unstudied; a naif in midi skirts, jumpers and loafers singing about boys and teenage loneliness. She was also in a relationship with photographer Jean-Marie Périer, thus the proliferation of his inamorata’s images appeared in magazines and television, more so than if she were just another young upstart on an independent record label. The yé-yé sound itself was a continental adaptation of the Brit-pop of the moment; a Parisian take on swinging London where Hardy’s girl-on-stool act was emblematic of an ambiguous femininity manifesting before the ’60s bubbled over. Whereas Bardot’s and even Jane Birkin’s lusty, come-hither and oozing sensuality were a sex-kitten knee jerk to the repression of the ’50s, Hardy’s allure was in its naturalness and, one could argue, basicness. Her melancholic, lyrical strumming paired with her rangy 5’10” figure in uncomplicated Gallic separates—an exquisitely fitting coat, a sweater in an off color (the daring green of her debut), and school-girl flats or demure heels—was a heady, if counterintuitive, brew.
She mentions that her lasting penchant for coats was not born out of an affinity to the garment, but rather a way of hiding something she was “trained to feel ashamed about” [her body], courtesy of her wicked grand-mère. Which adds a poignant dimension to perhaps the most iconic image of Hardy: a candid by Victor Blackman while she was filming her most popular movie, Grand Prix (1966). In the photo, she wears a trench coat and mod sunglasses, clutching a camera and a book, nearly buried in her off-duty accouterments but looking totally put together. It’s as if everything about her says Don’t talk to me, but at the same time makes her more interesting and relatable. Incidentally, Hardy’s quintessentially French jolie laide and rock cool gave her the head-scratchy moniker in the Parisian press of L’endive du twist, perhaps to explain the disparate qualities that made her so compelling: her beauty, her oddity and ultimately her fun.
As the decade progressed so did Hardy’s style. Growing out of her university balladeer jumpers—even the chicest among us can’t forever dress as we did at 16—she came into her own during one of the most exciting decades in French fashion. The ancien régime of haute couture was beginning to buckle under its bustled weight, and a new guard of dynamic ready-to-wear designers were poised to dress the liberated and complicated woman of the ’60s. It was Françoise Hardy who could pull off Paco Rabanne’s revolutionary, if impractical, chain mail or André Courrèges’ idiosyncratic space-age minis or Saint Laurent rive gauche classics. The moment was hers. On Hardy’s press trip to New York for Grand Prix, Diana Vreeland, then at the Everest of her fashion preeminence, commissioned Richard Avedon to shoot her in a glorious spread for the March 1967 issue of Vogue. Hardy’s trademark long tresses exploded like fireworks on the page while draped in the bright, kicky shift dresses Paris was made for. Back in London, while performing at the Savoy Hotel in a Rabanne jumpsuit, she made plans to meet Burt Bacharach for a post-show dinner in the very room she had just finished singing. But when she sat down at her table, in her stage outfit, she was told that pants on women were not allowed in the dining room and was asked to change or leave. Which is to say, Hardy threatened the establishment in real time, albeit in the chicest way imaginable.
But it was Grand Prix that transcended Hardy’s fashion-plate status into the pantheon of style icons. The film centers around the Formula 1 circuit with Hardy in the uniforms of the racing milieu: jaunty robin’s-egg pit crew all-in-ones, racing boots, striped and checkered flag dresses and skirts and the most perfectly distressed leather and denim ever on film. It is impossible to write the history of skinny jeans or leather pants without including Hardy’s portrayal of Grand Prix’s Lisa, as well as her off-set wardrobe while shooting the film. It was this particular moment that her easy, ever-so-offbeat beauty reached a zenith. Enhanced by the tough energy of the racing look, her lissome figure lent itself to the straight and tight silhouette of the leathers and workwear fabrics of racing gear. On her bombshell contemporaries, this could have been a sight gag; on Hardy it brought the best of her together, revving the style engines of intrepid women all over the world and sending the not so subtle message: If guy racers can do this, women can do it too—and better. But film was not in her soul and after the era-defining Grand Prix, she did very little.
Hardy may keep the press and fans at arm’s length, but the images and clips of her yé-yé and Grand Prix days are still endless fodder for fashion designers 50-plus years later. Not to mention all the worshipful tumblr pages and Instagram accounts devoted to the virtues of The French Woman. If one is in search of the ideal trench coat, black turtleneck, houndstooth skirt or skinny jeans, a handful of Françoise Hardy pictures will have you covered. And any season’s RTW runway or high street racks can be easily traced to something Hardy wore first or best: a leather jacket, a moto boot, and even a chain-mail minidress.
This is not to say that Hardy is merely a figure of the past only to haunt a designer’s moodboard. Au contraire. She released Personne d’autre (Nobody Else), her 28th studio album, this spring, three months after turning 74. A long way, to be sure, from the callow teenager who entranced the worlds of fashion and pop for the better part of a decade. But her sound and vision still inspire both of those fickle worlds. Whether in her 70s or 20s, is it even a question that we will ever be able to get enough of La Hardy? Hardly.