Parisian women breaking the law

Outfit by Béchoff-David - Photo by Séeberger

For over two centuries, most women in Paris have been breaking the law! Each time they wore trousers in public in the French capital, they were infringing a law introduced on 17 November 1800 (known as the 26 Brumaire de l’an IX) which banned women in Paris from “cross-dressing as a man” . This law, technically still in force 213 years later, has only recently been revoked by France’s Minister for Women’s Rights. Women in Paris are now allowed to wear trousers in public without the risk of being arrested and taken into custody. This now obsolete law, was first passed shortly after the French Revolution when long trousers were worn by the revolutionaries, ‘Les Sans-Culottes’, as a symbol of rebellion against the aristocracy who wore ‘culottes’ (knee-length pants). In Paris, female rebels demanded the right to wear trousers as well but were refused by law.

As a consequence, in the 19th century, Parisian women wishing to wear trousers had to request special permission from the police headquarters. Here is an official authorisation dated 12 May 1852 and obtained by Ms Rosa Bonheur, an acclaimed painter and the first woman to be presented with the Cross of an Officer of the Legion of Honor. She was given permission to wear trousers for health reasons but she had to renew the authorisation every six months.

Authorisation - Rose BonheurThe law was revised in 1892 and 1909 allowing women to wear pants in specific circumstances, such as “holding the handlebars of a bicycle or the reins of a horse”.

Outfit for cyclist 1895 (advertisement for Ricqlès)

Outfit for female cyclist 1895 (advertisement for Ricqlès)

Beyond the practical reasons, women saw the right to wear trousers as a way of getting rid of their corsetted conditions and restricting fashions of the past. It was a claim for emancipation, freedom and equality.

Coco Chanel was one of the first women in Paris to wear trousers in public while the above-mentioned law was still in place. By the 1930s the fashion for trousers was catching on and women started wearing pants more frequently. Fashion designers such as Yves St. Laurent transformed the trousers into dressy pant suits. In 1966 the term ‘unisex’ was coined and by the 1970s wearing pants became an acceptable form of casual wear for women.

Meanwhile, the text of 26 Brumaire de l’an IX, while no longer enforced, remained in the books. Politicians and feminist lobby groups attempted to have the trousers law revoked but failed, as according to officials, it was not a priority and the text was part of French “legal archaeology”. Or maybe not. Elected officials had to wait until the 1980s to earn the right to sit in pants in the French National Assembly and Senate. In 1972, Michele Alliot-Marie, technical counsellor to Minister Edgar Faure, made the news when, about to enter the Parliament in pants, she was stopped short by a bailiff. Undaunted, she replied: “If my pants are bothering you, I’ll take them off straight away”.

It takes time for mentalities to change. Finally on 31 January 2013 the (un)famous law was repealed by France’s Minister for Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. She declared that the law was “incompatible with the principles of equality between women and men that are written into the constitution, and in France’s European commitments.” (Article 3 of the preamble of the Constitution of 1946 indeed states that “the law guarantees women equal rights with men in all areas.”). She added “As a consequence, this by-law is implicitly repealed. It has absolutely no legal effect. The document is nothing but a museum piece.”

Taboos and conventions regarding women’s dress code in schools, the workplace, and fine restaurants are not specific to France alone. At least it is now official, who wears the pants and why is no longer a legal matter in France.

wood engraving early 19th century

wood engraving early 19th century