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Jean-Luc Godard and ‘French Girl’ Style

If a single garment has inscribed itself on fashion’s collective memory, it may well be Jean Seberg’s jauntily striped Breton sweater, worn for her role as Patricia in the film “Breathless.” A boyish badge of disaffection, the look was so often reproduced that, as the designer Scott Sternberg observed, “it’s become its own cottage industry.”

But the impact of that sweater, and of that 1960 art house film by Jean-Luc Godard, a pioneer of the French New Wave, who died this week at 91, extends far beyond Ms. Seberg’s wardrobe. The Godard aesthetic — low-key, streetwise and modeled on the romanticized, often unsanitized, world of the Parisian flâneur — has, to some minds, eclipsed the films themselves, surviving as an influence on three generations of style-besotted fans.

That aesthetic, which was a rebuke to the more formally structured, decorative French style of the time, represented, for Mr. Sternberg, the essence of Franco-American cool. (Mr. Sternberg’s Band of Outsiders label took its name and renegade spirit from one of Godard’s best-known works.) Embracing that mood today are contemporary brands, including La Ligne, COS, Everlane and Gap, and understated but stylish labels like A.P.C., which took the Godard aesthetic and infused it into almost everything they made.

“Its influence was less about ‘Oh, I like that sweater’ and more about this kind of attitude,” Mr. Sternberg said of the Godard aesthetic. “It was about not trying at all, just about being yourself” — youthful, unstudied, rooted in the moment yet, somehow, timeless.

For Agnès Troublé, the creative force behind the Parisian label agnès b., and a friend of the filmmaker, Mr. Godard’s clothes have a requisite antifashion appeal. “l love clothes, but I hate fashion,” Ms. Troublé said. Her decidedly muted, insouciant approach has filtered into her collections in the form of lean leather jackets, white shirts and jeans. She has always aimed, she said, to keep things “pure and simple.”

Anna Sui, a devout Godard follower, was introduced to French New Wave cinema by friends and spent the summer of 2012 immersed in the director’s filmography. She was so taken with his film “Band of Outsiders” (1964) that she paid rapt homage to it with her fall/winter 2013 collection.

Ms. Sui was particularly influenced by a dance sequence in the film, which she replicated in her show. The film’s central figures gather at a bar and feed a jukebox. The actress Anna Karina, as the punkish schoolgirl Odile, is wearing a kilt, slouchy sweater, knee-high socks and kitten heels. She and her companion, Arthur, played by Claude Brasseur in a beefy argyle sweater, take a spin on the dance floor.

Ms. Sui is no less enamored with “One Plus One” (the 1968 film later re-edited and christened “Sympathy for the Devil”). “The whole look of the show was very mod, but French mod, a more feminized version of English mod,” she said. Often less structured and more colorful than English mod, the candidly flirty signature accents — kitten heels, demure white collars and headbands — of French mod survive to this day.

By contrast, Ms. Seberg in “Breathless” projected a more sexually fluid appeal. In her Aran sweaters, cigarette pants, loafers and men’s shirts, Patricia, her casually cross-dressing character, “epitomizes modernity,” said Jane Hess, a former fashion writer also known as Medora on her influential Instagram account. “It all boils down to the fresh beautiful face without makeup, the blond haircut, the T-shirt, the jeans and the sunglasses.”

Godard’s female characters bent fashion to their own subversive ends. Ms. Karina, the director’s first wife and muse, made her mark as the protagonist in “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961), her white fur-collared cobalt coat projecting youthful insolence. Her character in “Alphaville” (1965) was waifish but smoldering, all deep bangs and kohl-rimmed eyes, her slinky black sheath incongruously trimmed with a white lace collar.  

Bridget Bardot was a similar mash of contradictions. She was saucy in “Contempt” (1963), garbed in wide girlish headbands, striped mariner tops, cardigans and calf-grazing skirts conceived to accentuate her sensuality while softening her bombshell image.

In “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (1967), a singularly fashion-savvy entry in the Godard oeuvre, Marina Vlady, as a bourgeois wife turned prostitute, washes dishes in a mod-style shift raucously patterned with teal and purple daisies. In another moment she flips through a magazine, asking idly, “Should I wear trompe l’oeil ankle sock designs on pantyhose designed by Louis Ferraud?” — Mr. Godard’s wink and nod to the vagaries of style. The auteur himself clearly dressed to impress, cultivating an air of mysterious eccentricity in his signature checked vest and dark gloves.

Mr. Godard’s dapper if dubious male leads had an impact of their own. As Michel Poiccard, a petty thief and killer on the run in “Breathless,” Jean-Paul Belmondo fashioned himself in the image of Humphrey Bogart, all nonchalance wearing a trilby, high-waisted trousers and a slouchy camel-hair jacket, his look accessorized with a Gallic smirk.

Playing the police inspector Lemmy Caution in the 1965 neonoir “Alphaville,” Eddie Constantine, a progenitor of international detective chic, projected a similar swagger in a tan overcoat (a look reprised on the runway at Vetements). In “Masculine Feminine,” a 1966 romantic drama, Jean-Pierre Leaud played Paul with a canny attention to detail, the collar of his polo shirt and lapels of his coat upturned for a raffish effect.

Such uncontrived looks from Mr. Godard’s films had a significant impact on the music of southern Europe in the 1960s, a style embodied by the yé-yé girls and, in particular, Françoise Hardy, Sheila and Sylvie Vartan, the latter a tousled blonde in tiny Courrèges frocks or, more often, a uniform of flared trousers, shrunken sweaters and ballet flats.

Colorful and often radical, some Godard style statements have yet to find their way onto American runways — but one can dream. “I haven’t had the opportunity yet,” Mr. Sternberg said, “but I’ve been trying to make the bright yellow terry cloth robe that Bardot wears in ‘Contempt’ for my entire career.”

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