"Gamine" is a French word, the feminine form of "gamin", originally meaning urchin, waif or playful, naughty child.

The word was used in English from about the mid 19th century (for example, by Thackeray in 1840 in one of his Parisian sketches), but, in the 20th century, came to be applied in its more modern sense of a slim, often boyish, wide-eyed young woman who is, or is perceived to be, mischievous, teasing or sexually appealing.


In 1997 the publisher HarperCollins drew up a list of 101 words - one a year - that defined the years 1896 to 1997 [See "The Times", 3 November 1997] . "Gamine" was chosen for 1899, being described by Philip Howard in "The Times" as follows:

An elfish young woman. Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday" was the archetypal, unforgettable, adorable gamine ["The Times", 3 November 1997] .

"Gamine" has been used particularly of such women in the performing arts or world of fashion. In that context, the closest English word - of Anglo-Norman origin - is probably “waif” (although “gamine” is often seen as conveying an additional sense of style and chic). For example, in a press release of 1964, impresario Andrew Oldham described the 17-year old singer Marianne Faithfull as "shy, wistful, waif-like" ["Faithfull - An Autobiography", 1994] ; and writer and musician John Amis referred to German-born actress Luise Rainer (b.1910) as Paul Muni's "waif-wife" in the 1937 film, "The Good Earth" ["The Oldie", August 2006] .

"Gaminerie" has sometimes been used in English with reference to the behaviour or characteristics of gamin(e)s.

Gamines in silent films

In the early 20th century, silent films brought to public attention a number of gamine actresses. These included the Canadian-born Mary Pickford (1892-1979), who became known as “America’s Sweetheart” and, with her husband Douglas Fairbanks, was one of the founders of the film production company United Artists; Lillian Gish (1893-1993), notably in "Way Down East" (1920); and Louise Brooks (1906-86), whose short bobbed hairstyle, widely copied in the 1920s, came to be regarded as both a gamine and a “Bohemian” trait (this style having first appeared among the Paris "demi-monde" before the First World War and among London art students during the war [Virginia Nicholson (2002) "Among the Bohemians"] ). In 1936 Charlie Chaplin cast his then partner Paulette Goddard (1910-1990) as an orphaned gamine in one of the last great silent films, "Modern Times".

Audrey Hepburn and gamines of the 1950s

In the 1950s “gamine” was applied notably to the style and appearance of the Belgian-born actress Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993): for example, in the films, "Sabrina" (1954) and "Funny Face" (1957). Hepburn also played the role of the gamine Gigi in New York (1951) in the play of that name, based on the novel (1945) by Colette, who had personally "talent-spotted" her when she was filming in Monte Carlo [Judith Thurman (1999) "Secrets of the Flesh - A Life of Colette"] . On film and in photographs, Hepburn’s short hair and petite figure created a distinct and enduring “look”, well defined by Don Macpherson ["Stars of the Screen" (Marks & Spencer, 1989)] , who cited her “naïveté which did not rule out sophistication” and described her as “the first gamine to be accepted as overpoweringly chic”.

Other film actresses of the period regarded as gamines included Leslie Caron (b.1931), who played the leading role in the 1958 musical film of "Gigi"; Jean Seberg (1938-79), best known in "Bonjour Tristesse" (1957) and Jean-Luc Godard’s "À bout de souffle" (1960); Jean Simmons (b.1929), for example, in "Angel Face" (1952); and Rita Tushingham (b.1940), whose first starring role was in "A Taste of Honey" (1961). The French singer Juliette Greco (b.1926), who emerged from Bohemian Paris in the late 1940s to become an international star in the 1950s, also had gamine qualities.

The 1960s and beyond

In many ways, the “gamine look” of the 1950s paved the way for the success of the English models Jean Shrimpton (b.1942), one of the first to promote the mini-skirt in 1965, Twiggy (b. Lesley Hornby, 1949), who in the mid 1960s became the face of “swinging” London, and Kate Moss (b.1974), associated in the 1990s with the “waif” look and what, notably through an advertising campaign for Calvin Klein in 1997, became known as “heroin chic”. Moss set a trend for “wafer” thin models which was nicely satirized in Neil Kerber’s strip cartoon, “Supermodels”, in the magazine "Private Eye". Reviewing the film "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006), David Denby described a "montage of semi-starved beauties pulling on lingerie and clothes as they dress for work ... like the lock-and-load scenes of soldiers strapping on their weapons in war movies" ["New Yorker", 10/17 July 2006] . Today Natalie Portman is described as gamine.

Other gamines

Others to have been described as gamines included Danish-French actress Anna Karina (b.1940); American actresses Julia Roberts (b. 1967) (she was often compared to Audrey Hepburn at the start of her career), Elizabeth Hartman (1943-1987), Mia Farrow (b.1945), Sissy Spacek (b.1949), Winona Ryder (b.1971), Gwyneth Paltrow (b.1972) and Calista Flockhart (b.1964); English actresses Suzanna Hamilton (b.1960), Helena Bonham Carter (b.1966), Tara Fitzgerald (b.1967), Olivia Williams (b.1968), Rachel Weisz (b.1971) [Richard Ward, "She", July 2005] ; Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros (b.1965); French actresses Juliette Binoche (b.1964) and Vanessa Paradis (b.1972); New York model Tina Chow (1951-92), whose "gamine look made her the darling of [photographers] Cecil Beaton and Arthur Elgort" ["The Times", 2 November 2006] ; Russian tennis player Anastasia Myskina (b.1981), who was French Open champion in 2004; and the singers Cat Power (Chan Marshall, b.1972) ("The French, in particular, took to her gamine looks and confused air" [Sasha Frere-Jones, "The New Yorker", 10 December 2007] ),(b.1977), Maggie Gyllenhaal, (b.1980), Zooey Deschanel, and Claudia Labadie, the latter of the London vocal duo, Gamine [ [ Gamine] ] .

Penelope Chetwode (1910-86), later Lady Betjeman, wife of the Poet Laurate, John Betjeman, was described by Betjeman's biographer A. N. Wilson as "gamine of feature, but large-breasted" [A. N. Wilson (2006) "Betjeman"] . Corinne Bailey Rae alleged that she was called a gamine in her song, "Choux Pastry Heart" (2005).

"Klute, Nikita, Amélie, Gelsomina"

Among gamine characters in films were Gelsomina, the street performer from La Strada played by Giulietta Masina, Bree Daniel, the prostitute played by Jane Fonda (b.1937) in "Klute" (1971), whose hairstyle was sometimes referred to as the "Klute shag"; Nikita (Anne Parillaud, b.1960), the punkish junkie in Luc Besson's 1990 film, who avoided a death sentence for murder by becoming a secret service assassin; and Amélie (Audrey Tautou, b.1978) in the romantic comedy of that name of 2001 set in Paris.


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