A gamine is a slim, elegant young woman who is, or is perceived to be, mischievous, teasing or sexually appealing.
The word gamine is a French word, the feminine form of gamin, originally meaning urchin, waif or playful, naughty child. It was used in English from about the mid-19th century (for example, by William Makepeace Thackeray in 1840 in one of his Parisian sketches), but in the 20th century, came to be applied in its more modern sense.
In 1997 the publisher HarperCollins drew up a list of 101 words – one a year – that defined the years 1896 to 1997. Gamine was chosen for 1899, being described by Philip Howard in The Times as follows:
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"; 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.
Gaminerie has sometimes been used in English with reference to the behaviour or characteristics of gamin(e)s.
In silent films
In the early 20th century, silent films brought to public attention a number of actresses who sported a gamine look. 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 World War I and among London art students during the war.) In 1936, Charlie Chaplin cast his then-girlfriend Paulette Goddard (1910–1990) as an orphaned gamine (credited as "A Gamin") in one of his last 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. On film and in photographs, Hepburn's short hair and petite figure created a distinct and enduring "look", well defined by Don Macpherson, 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 (1929-2010), 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 Gréco (1926-2020), who emerged from Bohemian Paris in the late 1940s to become an international star in the 1950s, also had gamine qualities.
1960s and beyond
In many ways, the "gamine look" of the 1950s paved the way for the success of the following English models: Jean Shrimpton (b. 1942), one of the first to promote the mini-skirt in 1965; Twiggy (b. Lesley Hornby, 1949), who became "The Face of '66"; 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 was part of a trend of "wafer" thin models which was satirized in Neil Kerber’s strip cartoon "Supermodels" in the magazine Private Eye.
Gamines share similarities with the modern, cinematic "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" stock character.
Others who have been described as gamines include Danish-French actress Anna Karina (1940–2019); American actresses Julia Roberts (b. 1967) (she was often compared to Audrey Hepburn at the start of her career), Edie Sedgwick (1943–1971), Elizabeth Hartman (1943–1987), Mia Farrow (b. 1945), Sissy Spacek (b. 1949), Winona Ryder (b. 1971), Michelle Williams (b. 1980), Gwyneth Paltrow (b. 1972), Calista Flockhart (b. 1964), Bridget Fonda (b. 1964), Mary Stuart Masterson (b. 1966), Jennifer Jason Leigh (b. 1962), and Ginnifer Goodwin (b. 1978); British actresses Carey Mulligan (b. 1985), Susannah York (1939–2011), Suzanna Hamilton (b. 1960), Helena Bonham Carter (b. 1966), Elisabeth Sladen (1946–2011), Carole Ann Ford (b. 1940) Tara FitzGerald (b. 1967), Olivia Williams (b. 1968), Rachel Weisz (b. 1970), Keira Knightley (b. 1985), Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros (b. 1965); French actresses Juliette Binoche (b. 1964), Audrey Tautou (b. 1976), Vanessa Paradis (b. 1972), and Caroline Proust (b. 1967); Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman (b. 1981); Canadian model Linda Evangelista (b. 1965); American models Kristen McMenamy (b. 1964) and Tina Chow (1951–92) (whose "gamine look made her the darling of [photographers] Cecil Beaton and Arthur Elgort"); Russian tennis player Anastasia Myskina (b. 1981); and American singer Cat Power (b. Chan Marshall, 1972) ("The French, in particular, took to her gamine looks and confused air").
Penelope Chetwode (1910–86), later Lady Betjeman, wife of the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, was described by Betjeman's biographer A. N. Wilson as "gamine of feature, but large-breasted". Corinne Bailey Rae alleged that she was called a gamine in her song, "Choux Pastry Heart" (2005).
Japanese 1990s J-Pop rock band vocalist Maki Watase was called a "spry gamine firecracker" in a review in the New Music Express.
Among the notable gamine characters of film are Gelsomina, the street performer from La Strada, played by Giulietta Masina; Bree Daniels, 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 titular punkish junkie in Luc Besson's 1990 film; and, most recently, Amélie (Audrey Tautou) in the 2001 romantic comedy of that name; Alice Cullen, the vampire played by Ashley Greene (b. 1987) in The Twilight Saga (2008) .
- See The Times, 3 November 1997
- The Times, 3 November 1997
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- The Times, 2 November 2006
- Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker, 10 December 2007
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- The dictionary definition of gamine at Wiktionary